Non-Western Viewpoints 'Broaden Understanding'

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According to the Stanford faculty senate, the first objective of the new culture course--"Cultures, Ideas, and Values''--is "to provide students with the common intellectual experience of broadening their understanding of ideas and values drawn from different strands of our own culture, and to increase their understanding of cultural diversity and the process of cultural interaction.''

In the following selections from a discussion prepared for the university's Campus Report, John Perry, professor of philosophy, explains the rationale for creating the new course and abolishing its predecessor's "core list'' of readings:

The 1978 task force described Western culture as follows:

"We think of Western culture as originating in the Near East, Greece, and Rome, developing in diverse ways in Europe and North America, and gradually influencing and being influenced by cultures in virtually all other parts of the world.''

So Western culture is defined by starting with something in the ancient world, and tracing its influence forward. This certainly includes a lot of important works and events, which form a main source of contemporary American ideas and values. And works from Western culture, so defined, will continue to constitute most of the tracks. It is what the faculty knows best, and [the new course], while emphasizing the role of other cultures, specifically requires all tracks to include Europe, and emphasizes the last six to eight centuries of European culture as an important root of present American society.

But the concept of Western culture, understood in this way, is not co-extensive with the concept of the roots of contemporary American ideas and values. To fix the extension of of the latter notion in our minds, we begin with contemporary America and trace backward for roots. Those that lead back through Europe to Greece and the Near East are important, but there are others that lead to other parts of Africa, to Latin America, to parts of Asia.

I am not, of course, recommending that we teach the course in reverse chronological order. ...

The [course] is not based on the idea that all such roots need to be represented in every track. But it does maintain that each track ought to provide some recognition that there are roots other than the dominant one. ...

The works should not be drawn exclusively from Europe: Somewhere in the three-quarter track, non-European works (i.e., from cultures in the Near East, Africa, the Americas, and Asia that are not European transplants) that have had an impact on contemporary American culture should be studied. The works should not be exclusively by white males, and some should confront issues relating to class, ethnicity, race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation.

Tracks as a whole should help students understand how important ideas and values are in shaping the perceptions of a period or culture, and how the interactions of cultures shape ideas and values. This experience should help students broaden their understanding of ideas and values of contemporary American culture. And as they understand better the ideas and values that motivate people, they should better understand both themselves and others. ...
There are two ways to look at the core list. The core list was originally conceived as a flexible document, serving to provide a common if somewhat arbitrary core of worthwhile works. It was developed by a committee of faculty who were teaching courses that existed before 1978, that seemed liable to be good candidates for inclusion into the new program. It was assumed that it would change. ...

The other conception is of the core list as Stanford's canon of great works, the list of works that are better than any others, and will remain so independently of the faculty interested in teaching them, the students to whom they will be taught, or new ideas in scholarship.

Both conceptions are controversial. The first requires us to accept that engagement with important works of the past is an effective educational technique. Many do not believe this. But this point of view was argued for in the 1978 report, and was accepted by the Senate when it passed the current legislation.

The second point of view is, and should be, more controversial, for a number of reasons. First, even to those who accept traditional views about the greatness of some works, and the role of great works in history, the particular core list cannot be reasonably regarded as anything but one selection among many possible ones of works that would be worthwhile to use.

Are we really to believe that the explanation of works of Machiavelli and More being on the reading list, and not those of Berkeley and Sidgwick, is because the former are better works to use, independently of faculty interest, student concerns, and the state of scholarship? Are we to believe that no works from China or India are as worthy of inclusion, no matter who is teaching or learning, as Luther or Freud?

Is the decision to use Machiavelli's The Prince, rather than Al-Maghili's The Obligation of Princes, timeless and eternal? This was not the conception of the core list that was defended in the 1978 report, the 1980 Pilot Committee Report, or the meetings of the Senate.

Many scholars in the humanities and social sciences, including many younger faculty at Stanford whose involvement ... is crucial, have offered the Task Force additional reasons to doubt this conception of the core list.

They feel that modern work on interpretive theory, canon formation, and other topics has shown that the whole idea of a list of great works, even one much more extensive than the core list, is suspect. There are more and less extreme versions of such views, of course. And it does not follow from this view that engagement with important works is not educationally sound. But we have a solid core of younger faculty who are extremely reluctant to get involved with a core list, conceived of not as a flexible teaching instrument, but as a timeless decision.

The history of the core list shows that it was originally conceived in the first way, as a pragmatic, flexible document that would help ensure a common experience, and would reflect, at any given time, the interests and perspectives of the Stanford faculty, and so provide students with a basis for further work at Stanford. But it has been perceived by virtually everyone outside the teaching faculty, and some within, in the second way. It has become the symbol of a course that was never recommended to the Senate, and never voted on by the Senate, that does not represent the values of most of those who teach in the course, and is a bar to many who would like to. ...

I am firmly convinced that the core list is harmful. It costs us more than it brings us. It has distorted not only perceptions of the program, but the program itself. It has alienated a generation of minority and area studies faculty whose participation is crucial. It has helped fortify the unfortunate wall between humanities and social sciences faculty that the cooperative enterprise of teaching Western culture was supposed to help break down. It original aim was to help ensure a common experience, and it does this. But there is more common experience envisaged in the core list than there is in the syllabi, and more in the syllabi than there is in the classroom. The amount of common experience generated by the core list can be approached by other means and does not justify the price we are paying for it. ...

Given the increased freedom for experimentation the absence of the core list will provide, and the need to integrate works from non-European sources, one can expect some fine works to be replaced, but there is no reason to suspect that great works will be replaced by inferior ones. There are many great works of literature and philosophy and art from Latin America, Asia, and Africa ... .

Vol. 07, Issue 32

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