Stanford Can Do Better

The Problem of a Western Civilization Requirement

In its February 21st release of what it terms a “manifesto,” the Stanford Review’s Editorial Board identifies a real problem with the university’s curriculum, namely, the lack of a commitment to a “liberal education.” The Editorial Board explains, I think correctly, that an undergraduate education which confers nothing more than skills and experience deprives the student of the historical and cultural perspective necessary to see themselves as part of a broader social, economic, and political system. This is especially relevant at Stanford, where the top five majors are Computer Science, Human Biology, Engineering, Biology, and Science, Technology and Society. These disciplines, and the Stanford degree in general, prepare students to work on projects that can do tangible good for people in this country and around the world. But without grounding scientific expertise in history, ethics, and politics, we lose sight of why these disciplines matter and the broader societal impact they can have.

Stanford previously answered this problem by requiring all students to take a multi-quarter Introduction to the Humanities (IHUM), which was universally despised. Now, Introduction to the Humanities has been retired and replaced by the comparatively minuscule Thinking Matters requirement, which can be fulfilled through classes like “The Language of Food” and “The Science of Mythbusters.” Do these classes sound interesting? Undoubtedly. Are they a substitute for the broad historical and literary survey of IHUM? I think not. Stanford replaced an unpopular curriculum that attempted to give students a broad introduction to historical and philosophical thought with a token requirement that doesn’t even try. And that is what the Stanford Review gets right.

Where the argument goes awry is when it suggests that the answer, and the best answer, is requiring all students to take a Western Civilization course, which the article helpfully defines:

…two quarters would impart this history to generations of students, documenting the stories of Western nations, politics, culture, philosophy, economics, literature, art, values, and science from Ancient Greece to the present.

Sounds great, right? Not for everyone. Many Stanford students don’t come from backgrounds where this body of literature is preeminent in their culture. On face, this doesn’t sound awful. Why not introduce them to the comparatively unfamiliar Western body of thought? But for many undergraduates, the same cultural currents that underlie what we think of as “the Western canon” are inextricably woven into their own oppression. For example, Aristotle’s Politics justifies slavery, and Locke’s Treatise on Government argues for massive amounts of economic inequality. Does this mean these works shouldn’t be read? Absolutely not. But to claim, as the Review does, that these European thinkers ought to be prioritized to the exclusion of everything else is a problem. My life has been enriched and my worldview expanded through exposure to Western thinkers, and I personally believe that it is impossible to understate the value of their writing. But this does not provide sufficient grounds for excluding other works which are just as meaningful and important. During the fall quarter of SLE, I found the Qur’an and Zhuangzi equally or even more impactful than the Hebrew Bible and Aristotle. The problem with Western Civilization isn’t that Western thinkers will be read, it is that other thinkers will not be.

What, then, is the Review’s justification for limiting what would be Stanford’s only humanities requirement to Western thinkers? Paltry, is what it is. The crux of the argument is the idea that attempting to cover more civilizations will water down the course. From the Review article:

Broad survey courses that attempt to cover several cultures have serious drawbacks…Superficial knowledge of several cultures would inhibit deep discussion and understanding.

On face, this seems to make sense. The more areas a course covers, the less comprehensively it can cover each one. This is undeniably true. But the fallacy underlying this argument is the belief that it is possible, in two quarters and without disrupting a student’s ability to reasonably handle other classes, to give a comprehensive overview of Western civilization. This belief is sorely mistaken, and SLE proves it. I am a student in a three-quarter course that does disrupt my ability to successfully complete other courses, and barely touches anything outside of the Western canon. But even the leaders of this monolithic humanities core categorically object to the idea that SLE provides in-depth, comprehensive coverage of Western civilization. That, they say, would be impossible to do. And they are right. Any humanities requirement that covers multiple thinkers and thousands of years will ultimately fail to give students a deep and accurate understanding of each one. So I think we have to accept that, maybe, this isn’t the purpose of a humanities requirement.

So what is? Given that it is unreasonable to give students anything but a survey of the humanities in two quarters, the next task is to determine what this survey of thinkers should include. The Review claims that globalization will eventually lead to the preeminence of Western values (as if the entire West agrees on a set of values), and that this justifies the requirement’s exclusive focus.

Capitalism and trade are global phenomena, and every country participates in financial markets… Furthermore, societies that embrace Western innovations — such as a strong rule of law, reason, political freedoms, and property rights — thrive. It is no coincidence that economic development efforts attempt to export Western principles. After all, they work.

It takes a special kind of delusion to paint reason as a “Western innovation.” To what Western thinker do we trace the “innovation” of reason? Were all people before this marvelous thinker dullards who survived on animal instinct alone? Although the authors of this article claim that learning exclusively about Western civilization could provide insight into the oppression and colonization that fueled its rise, they are unable to separate themselves from the narrative that I fear would dominate the classroom: that despite its manifold flaws, the West is the best. The Review article is a shining example of the problem with limiting a survey course to Western civilizations—by excluding all other values and ways of thinking, we fall prey to the notion that they don’t matter, that all of the real ideas came from the Western tradition, and although other people had some cool ideas, we did it better.

So how can we provide Stanford students with the liberal education they sorely need without arbitrarily preferring one cultural narrative over another? There are many options. One might be creating a set of classes that allow students to fulfill the requirement by learning about the civilization of their choosing: Islamic History, Ancient China, Greece, Egypt, and so on. This wouldn’t solve the issue of breadth, but it would accommodate students who were seeking an alternative to the traditional Western canon. And by limiting the course to a narrower location in space and time, students could engage more deeply with the material. Some might lament that this variety gives students less common ground on which to engage. This is a gross oversimplification. The idea that a student studying Chinese bureaucracy would have nothing to say to another studying the Roman Senate is, frankly, absurd. But if a curriculum common to all Stanford students is so important, an alternative might be a more broad and inclusive survey course. This could function similarly to SLE, where class sizes are relatively small, and where each lecture is delivered by a professor who is an expert in that area, so as to avoid a decline in teaching quality. In either case, students have either a choice or a mandate to explore civilizations outside of the West.

To uphold the importance of a liberal education while avoiding the presumption that only Western thinkers matter, Stanford needs a humanities core that is both more robust and more diverse. The first to enroll, perhaps, should be the Editorial Board of the Stanford Review.

Ben Anderson is a first-year student at Stanford. He can be reached at