Students & Parents | General Education

Restore Western Civilization at Stanford

NATIONAL REVIEW   |  April 8, 2016 by Eric M. Bledsoe

In a scene that smacks of Monty Python’s 1979 classic The Life of Brian, a grassroots movement at Stanford University is forcing the public to ask, “Besides democracy, education, philosophy, logic, mathematics, engineering, literature, and theater, what has Western civilization ever done for us?” Leading the debate is the editorial board of the Stanford Review, an independent student-run newspaper, which has gained more than 370 signatures to meet the requirements for an undergraduate student-body vote, which began yesterday and continues through 11:59 a.m. (Pacific time) today. The question on the ballot: Should Stanford University restore to its Western Civilization requirement for undergraduates?

When the American campus environment is shaken with protests supporting the solipsistic flavor of the month, university leaders should look to the demand of these Stanford students, who seek an invigorating curriculum that values honest dialogue, toleration, and context as a model for 21st-century higher education. The movement has reignited a decades-old debate over the value of studying a common Western culture. In the 1980s, under pressure from protesters – “Hey, hey! Ho! Ho! Western Civ has got to go!” – Stanford repealed its longstanding Western Civilization requirement. The aim was to institute a more “inclusive” curriculum that focused on multiculturalism, gender identity, and race. Engaged in the public debate were none other than Jesse Jackson and William Bennett, Ronald Reagan’s secretary of education. In February the Stanford Review released its manifesto calling for the restoration of a Western Civilization course examining “the narratives and values that bind us: the polar opposite of ‘awareness and understanding of differences.’” Two weeks later, the editors reported on the backlash against the student signers, who were accused of racism, classism, hatred, etc.

Opposition to the movement then manifested institutionally when the Associated Students of Stanford University tried to halt the petition because of an alleged violation of ASSU bylaws concerning access to student e-mail lists. The vote was eventually cleared after the complaints were “resolved and no wrongdoing [was] found,” according to the ASSU elections commissioner. If the student body votes yes on the petition, the proposal will need approval from the faculty senate before it is implemented in the Stanford curriculum. At present, Stanford’s curriculum has a “Thinking Matters” requirement, which can be satisfied by the course “Food Talks: The Language of Food,” for example. It’s treated as if its value were equal to that of “The Spirit of Democracy.” The students’ criticism is that the “requirements are out of balance, requiring diversity yet neglecting the equally important goals of societal cohesion.” Of course, specialized courses such as “Food Talks” can be stimulating and engaging, but their cost is devastating when they mean a lack of foundational courses that would underpin informed citizenship and preparation for an adult career.

The problem is not particular to Stanford. Nationally, Western Civilization requirements are largely absent from university curricula. In the early 1990s, liberal icon Arthur Schlesinger went to the New York Times to bemoan the narrowing of the college curriculum, noting that “students could graduate from 78 percent of American colleges and universities without taking a course in the history of Western civilization.” The sobering results of a 2011 report by the National Association of Scholars confirmed what Schlesinger feared. Of the 50 elite institutions studied, all had Western Civilization requirement in 1964 – by 2010, few did. Even worse, only 32 percent offered a Western Civilization course even as an option for undergraduates.

The consequences of such unbalanced curricula are illustrated in a report by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. ACTA finds that nearly half of college graduates could not identify the correct term lengths of members of Congress and that one third could not correctly identify the Bill of Rights. In its curricular survey, ACTA reports that only 18 percent of colleges require a course in American history. American higher education has come to a point where the value of “analyzing the language . . . of Yelp reviews” is deemed equal to the value of analyzing the Constitution. What started as a populist movement for inclusion and egalitarianism has only resulted in a more divisive, fractured, and discontented American student body. We have already seen the grave consequences of over 30 years of ideologically rancorous courses guised under the “inclusive” banner of diversity requirements. If students want real diversity and inclusion, they should revise, not revile, the Western canon. Allan Bloom said that what makes Western civilization unique is its emphasis on self-reflection and open dialogue. To his critics he said: “There is no conspiracy; only the desire to know. If we . . . turn our backs on the great dialogue, our loss will be irreparable.”

We learn the great dialogue collectively, from Douglass and Du Bois, Homer and Socrates, Eliot and Woolf. We must critique both brilliant and blundered ideas, of liberty and slavery; of despotism and constitutional government; of mercantile colonialism and prosperity-inducing capitalism. Higher-educational institutions that refuse to examine the triumphs and tragedies from Athens to Washington only guarantee that future generations will be ensnared by past vices, denied the promise of virtue.

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, William Faulkner lamented that “there are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up?” With the existential and intellectual threats facing us today, his sentiment could not be more appropriate. Higher education must return to the study of those universal victories and defeats of the human spirit that Western civilization has faced over the millennia. Stanford students now have an opportunity to ensure that they receive a cohesive education that prepares them for 21st-century leadership. Restoring the study of Western civilization in their curriculum can spark in higher education the renaissance that our nation so desperately needs.


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

Discover More