Western civilization is under attack at American colleges and universities. The most publicized series of incidents is the willingness of the Stanford University faculty to introduce a replacement for Western civilization that includes equal time for minority contributions and women authors. Presumably what the Stanford faculty has responded to is the charge that the reading list reflects a Euro-centered, male bias with sexist and racist stereotypes. Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, John Stuart Mill, Shakespeare, and Dante have been reduced to stereotypes in the New Age.

What is at work at Stanford and elsewhere is curriculum reform through intimidation. Those at the barricades tend to be the vocal reformers who claim that women, the poor, and blacks are insufficiently represented in course readings. As one student activist pointed out to me recently, “It is better to have one reading by a black revolutionary than all the sonnets of Shakespeare.” Barry Katz, professor of history at Stanford and member of the academic task force responsible for the new course, contends that “the existing course requirement asserts that we have a common culture and it asserts that it can be defined by a bit of reading in the great works. This has been an affront to a large number of students and faculty, to women and members of minority groups.”

The majority of faculty members at Stanford are disappointed with the curriculum reform but went along with it out of a sense of compromise and because of excessive student pressure. However, once the compromise was accepted—namely the acceptance of a new course—the entire faculty can be held accountable for making a travesty of Western culture.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Isaac Barchas, a student, described the Stanford reform as an “impoverishment of the undergraduate experience.” He writes, “For if the Western intellectual tradition has a generally unifying theme, it is that incidental characteristics such as race are irrelevant. One’s mind, not one’s accidental existence, is the true measure of one’s worth.” Unfortunately, Mr. Barchas may be in the real minority at Stanford. Carolyn Longee, another faculty member and member of the task force, wrote that “The Western civ course is not a timeless, eternal distillate of human wisdom.” In her mind this curriculum can be altered to accommodate the changing ethnic profile of the nation.

But even if we were to take this proposal seriously, how are we to proceed? Saul Bellow implicitly addressed this question by asking. Where are “the Tolstoy of the Zulus, the Proust of the Papuans”? If we were to take seriously Matthew Arnold’s admonition to teach the best that is known and written, we would be hard pressed to give equal weight to authors of color.

Yet in the long run the central desire of these redressers of past wrongs, if achieved, will serve only to undermine the freedom they seem to admire. For it is in the Western tradition that we find the concepts of civil liberties and academic freedom. It is the West that created a civilization which permitted the quest for equality. To undo this tradition is to reintroduce the bestiality, enslavement, and barbarism that characterizes so much of this globe. The tradition of Africa that many black activists espouse is not a tradition that allows either for inalienable rights or the free exchange of ideas which prompted a curriculum reform at Stanford. (For a lengthier discussion of Stanford’s woes, see Sidney Hook in this issue).