As an observer of the educational scene at Stanford University during the last 14 years, I am taking the liberty of offering some comments on the proposed reforms in the course on Western culture. Among my professional interests has been a prolonged concern with the philosophy of education and with the philosophy of the curriculum. I greeted with approval the reintroduction of the course in Western culture in 1980 and have followed closely the discussions of the various reform proposals for it. Such discussions about the courses on Western culture—their content, their organization, and the most effective methods of teaching them—have been held on many other campuses. Two things, however, are distinctive about the discussion at Stanford.

The first is the almost complete absence of reference to a considerable literature by highly qualified scholars on the genuine problems that are involved in exploring perfectly legitimate differences about methods of approach, content. Western or universal (world) orientation. For example, a few years ago a national conference was convened at Michigan State University on the subject: What Americans Should Know: Western Civilization or World History? The published proceedings (1984) were edited with an introduction by Professor Josef W. Konvitz. There is hardly a single topic of educational interest broached in the discussion at Stanford during the last two years that has not been considered in depth in those proceedings—including questions of periodization, chronological coverage, and the extent to which the cultures and histories of other areas of the world should be integrated into the required course. For all the differences among participants, the discussions were conducted on a distinguished intellectual level. The bibliographical references call attention to other scholarly writings on world history and world culture courses. The discussion at Stanford seems to have ignored a considerable amount of relevant literature on the central themes in dispute.

The second distinctive thing about the discussion at Stanford is the deplorable level of discourse and the denunciatory abuse which have marked the exchange of different points of view. The course in Western culture at Stanford has been attacked as racist, sexist, and imperialistic. One critic of the course declared that Western culture as it stands is “not just racist education, it is the education of racists.” More distressing even than this violation of civilized discourse was the lack of appropriate response from the humanistic scholars who have taught in and designed the program, and who should have protested the degradation of the intellectual level of the discussion.

Proposals were made to reform the alleged bias in the course on Western culture by the injection of material from non-Western culture, Third World countries, and from spokesmen for feminists and the various oppressed minorities. They elicited some relevant technical objections to their feasibility and desirability—limited time, inadequate personnel, and their relative significance for the perennial problems of reflective life central to the course. These objections were fiercely denounced as a mask for the expression of racism and as more subtle manifestations of the spirit of intolerance and violence evident in the outrages at Howard Beach and elsewhere. The pages of the Stanford Daily contain the most intemperate and irresponsible charges of racism against those who defended retaining the course on Western culture, with some modification, on various educational grounds. Among the grounds was the approval of the overwhelming number of students who had completed the course over the years. Some declared it to be the high point of their educational experience.

The extent to which the discussion of the course on Western culture became politicized is evidenced in the shouting protest march of last January on the Stanford senate led by the Reverend Jesse Jackson demanding the abolition of the course. The marchers chanted: “Hey, hey, ho, ho: Western culture has got to go.” Whatever his contributions to American life and culture, the Reverend Jesse Jackson is not known for his contributions to curricular reform on the collegiate level. That the members of the Senate and Academic Council of Stanford University should be in need of instruction from Mr. Jackson on the essentials of liberal education is preposterous. One can very well imagine what the reaction of the Stanford faculty would have been to a march on the senate by the Reverend Pat Robertson demanding that the course in Western culture be Christianized.

It goes without saying that there is no justification for any expression of racism, especially in an educational institution, and above all in an institution like Stanford. An assertion that Stanford’s course in Western culture is an expression of racism is no more credible to any informed person than the charge that The Hoover Institution is a hotbed of Communism.

As morally offensive as any expression of racism is, a false charge of racism is equally offensive—perhaps even more so—because the consequences of a false charge enable an authentic racist to conceal his racism by exploiting the loose way the term is used to cover up his actions. The same is true of a false charge of sexism or anti-Semitism. This is the lesson we should all have learned from the days of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Because of his false and irresponsible charges of Communism against liberals, Socialists, and others among his critics, many Communists and agents of Communist influence sought to pass themselves off as Jeffersonian democrats or merely idealistic reformers. They would all complain they were victims of Red-baiting to prevent criticism and exposure. The First Amendment, of course, gives everyone the right to express his or her sentiments whatever they are—Communist, fascist, racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, or what not—provided his or her words are not an incitement to violence. Students have a right to profess and hear all views. But there is such a thing as the ethics of words, as the great American philosopher Charles Pierce once observed, and their violation is an intellectual crime, especially in an academic community.

There is no need to go over the thoroughly plowed ground to justify the course in Western culture. Aside from the intrinsic value of the study of the outstanding books, ideas, movements, and personalities that constitute their subject matter, this course seeks to familiarize students with their common legacy, including the conflicting cultural traditions of the past that have shaped the present and contributed to some of our current difficulties and dilemmas. The materials studied have in part provided us with the basic categories of thought, the conceptual tools, sentiments, and dispositions with which to approach the central problems of a reflective life. Far from leading to a glorification of the status quo, as ignorant detractors charge, the knowledge imparted by such courses, properly taught, is essential to understanding the world of our own experience, whether one seeks to alter or preserve it. Indeed, the ideals of tolerance, the limitations of ethnocentrism, the Utopian visions invoked by critics of Western society and its institutions are all expressed in the literature studied in the course in Western culture. It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that of all cultures of which we have knowledge, Western culture has been the most critical of itself.

I have discussed elsewhere, and at length, the manifold ways in which a course in Western culture on the model of the existing courses at Stanford contributes to enriching the internal landscape of the student’s mind, regardless of the individual’s specialized vocational choice. Essential to such a course is a common core of readings, modifiable from time to time, without which a coherent, unified program of studies in Western culture, allowing for diversified approaches, cannot be achieved.

Before examining more closely the proposed reform of the course on Western culture, some observations are in order. The fact that the overwhelming number of students who have completed the course profess to be highly satisfied with its content and manner of instruction, although relevant, is not a decisive consideration. Students should be consulted on any matter that affects them, but the faculty, which confers their degrees, bears the ultimate responsibility for deciding what to teach them, how, and when. A faculty cannot surrender its authority to pressure groups inside or outside the university without stultification.

Secondly, I have already referred to the myth that the tradition of Western culture is something unitary or monolithic rather than a complex of conflicting traditions including those of dissent. I would go further. There is no definitive meaning or moral in any required text that is necessarily imposed on students by its study. A competent teacher can, with any required text, play the role of devil’s or angelic advocate. In my teaching days, confronted by a class of skeptics, I would make them see the force of the logic of beliefs in transcendence in its strongest and most sophisticated form. Faced with those frozen in dogmatic religious belief, I would make them aware of the formidable power of Humean skepticism. The greatness of Plato’s Republic as a perennial philosophical text is that it lends itself to the exciting counterposition of arguments and sentiments on both sides of themes that have contemporary vibrancy, such as feminism, censorship, the defects of democracy, the snares of totalitarianism, and many others. And this without reliance on the feeble dialectic of Socrates’ interrogation; the teacher can further this open approach with occasional reference to supplementary reading.

Thirdly, some of the criticisms of the course are clearly bizarre and others manifestly unwarranted. One of these criticisms asserts that the content and standards of Western culture were restricted to “elite members of Western society.” But under the social conditions of the past, who else but the elite could be the creators of culture? Does this criticism imply that the elite contributions are beyond the capacity of Stanford students? What has happened to the pursuit of excellence? Not so long ago Dean Wessells declared that Stanford “continues to assemble on the faculty a group of persons who are among this country’s—and indeed the world’s—leading scholar/teachers.” He goes on to say “the university’s undergraduate body is elite by anyone’s standards.” With a teaching body and student body of this character, what objection can there be to a study of the elite culture of the elite? What else has come down to us?

We are also told “that the elite ideas are not the totality of meaningful ideas in a society.” Of course if they were, they wouldn’t be elite. Yet this tautology is offered as a critique of Western culture. There is a wide variety of other courses in sociology, anthropology, economic history, politics, etc. in which other aspects of society can be studied. In my Jefferson Lecture, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, “The Humanities and the Defense of Freedom,” I have argued that Western democracy owes more to the trade unions and the dissident churches than to the elite humanist tradition. But the justification for the study of the great works of Western culture is not political. The oft-repeated charge that the Western culture program “propounds white male values and slights the contributions of women and minority groups to the development of the Western tradition” is simply unwarranted.

Finally, the epistemology of the criticism of Western culture is primitive and mistaken especially in the demand that faculty be recruited from “women and people of color” to study ideas and aspects of culture that involve them. Where ideas are concerned, the primary consideration is mastery of subject and not identification with it. One does not have to be German to study Luther or the German Reformation, or sympathetic to the Nazis to study Hitler. One might as well argue that men cannot be gynecologists, that only women are best qualified to study family law, or that only fat physicians can study obesity or hungry people the phenomenon of starvation. One of the greatest contributions to the exposure and struggle against racism in the United States was made by Gunnar Myrdal—a Swedish white man. Race, color, religion, national origin, and sexual orientation are neither necessary nor sufficient conditions for the fruitful study of the humanities or any subject. In scholarship as in sport today—alas! it was not always so!—the quest should always be for the best qualified.

Scholars in the natural and medical sciences may feel that the aberrant notions I have described above can prevail only in the soft disciplines of the humanities and social studies. Let them not delude themselves. If such views are not laid to rest, wherever they manifest themselves, they will make their presence felt in recruiting in the natural and medical sciences as well. In some of these fields in the past there have been disgraceful and invidious practices of discrimination on the basis of race, religion, and sex. The abolition of discrimination must not be a preface to any kind of reverse discrimination. In some areas we are already hearing criticism of the concept of objectivity and culture-free criteria of scientific validity and claims about the “efficiency of non-Western medical systems” which presumably should be integrated into the curriculum of our medical schools.

Many features of the proposed reform of the current course in Western culture are of dubious educational value when contrasted with their educational alternatives. Two of them are fatal to any worthwhile course. The first is the absence of a core of required texts in all tracks. The second is the restriction of the time to be covered to 500 years, which in effect gives the impression that Western culture today is the residue of the cultural achievements from the 15th century to the present. Would it were so! Western culture would be less complex and in some respects better. But the legacy of the ancient and medieval world is still with us.

There is no need to despair that the contrasts, influence, and interactions of non-Western cultures on Western civilization will be lost or neglected. Knowledgeable and skillful teaching can introduce references to parallel or analogous ideas and institutions in cultures other than our own when the material requires them. This can be done without the pretense that the course in Western culture can be transformed into a course of world culture.

The debate in the Stanford Faculty Senate over the future of the course in Western culture is not yet over. Happily it has been free of the false and degrading accusations that marked so much of the discussion in the previous years. A disturbing aspect of the discussion so far is that all parties to the debate, whatever their views on the wisdom of retaining a core list, are agreed that works “by women and persons of color” should be added to the list. One would have thought that the criteria of selection should be intellectual distinction and cultural significance. That there are no women authors on the current list no more signifies that the core list is sexist than the absence of American authors indicates that it is anti-American. We should add works by Americans, women, and persons of color only on the basis of their educational significance.

This gratuitous agreement—gratuitous from the standpoint of educational quality—is the clue to the basic political motivation among some of the student groups that originally organized the opposition to the course in Western culture.


A version of this essay appeared as a letter to the senate of Stanford University in The Campus Report.