Hey, Stanford: ‘Western Civ Has Gotta Grow’

Back in 1987, in a paroxysm of self-contradiction, Jesse Jackson engaged in what would have gotten him tossed in the clink had he done anything comparable in Djakarta or Chungking.  He led a crowd of banner-waving students at Stanford, taking advantage of a western nation’s heritage of free assembly and free speech, even when the assembly is noisy and the speech is foolish.  They were complaining about the school’s modest requirement of two semesters in Western Civilization.  “Hey hey, ho ho,” cried out the poetical preacher, “Western Civ has got to go!”

And go it did, replaced by the usual college fare, which might range from a sensible course in history to politically motivated twaddle: “Dance in Prison” or “Food Speaks” or “Queer Theory in Comparative Literature.”  What did not replace it?  Shared courses in great works of art, literature, history, or philosophy, or an alternate course in the civilization of India or the civilization of China.

So now, a group of students at The Stanford Review has circulated a petition to reinstate that modest requirement, and a manifesto making the case for its necessity.  The authors of the manifesto cite Stanford Law professor Michael McConnell on the poor preparation of the students he teaches, who “have little or no familiarity with the political, intellectual and cultural history that shaped the American legal system.”  These students “have never heard of Hobbes and Locke, do not know the causes of the American Revolution, are unfamiliar with the Lincoln-Douglas debates…. don’t know what separates Protestants and Catholics,” and so forth.  McConnell concludes: “One thing a great university provides is education about what educated people should learn.”

That, right there, should point the petitioners towards the most powerful argument in favor of their proposal, one they could hardly emphasize too much.  It is that graduates of Stanford as the curriculum is now constituted will be – I am reaching for a technical term – ninnies.  The petitioners do note that Stanford engineers will be engaging in research that will change the face of the world, covering the land in robots like locusts and threatening the jobs of nearly half of all workers.

Imagine these inventors, ambitious and clever, but utterly incapable of thinking along with the great heritage of western philosophers and theologians, ignorant of history, and possessed of tastes determined by mass entertainment rather than by Rembrandt or Keats.  They are the technocrats of the future, morally anarchic, easily attracted by schemes that would subordinate all human activity to centralized direction – by people like themselves. Hence, there is an urgency about the manifesto; an urgency which I believe is entirely warranted.

The opponents of their proposal, if I may judge by comments upon it, and by twenty-five years of listening to the opponents of our own Western Civilization program at Providence College, are afflicted by delusions of adequacy. They are under the odd impression that they actually know things. They believe, for example, that twelve years of American schooling will actually have imparted considerable knowledge of English literature and of the European literature upon which it is founded.  They believe that college students already can say sensible things about Wordsworth, when most do not know who Wordsworth is, and those who do, cannot write grammatical prose. They think that they are ready to learn about “other cultures,” when they have no firm grasp of what it even means to have a culture, since they have precious little knowledge of their own.  These students are not the radicals here. They are altogether satisfied with their ignorance, even smug about it.  They are content with the nostrums of our time, peddled by mass politics and mass entertainment, which degraded phenomena are increasingly indistinguishable from one another.

The petitioners at Stanford are forthright in proposing that only one civilization, the Western, be studied, because the Western has, as a matter of brute fact, provided the terms of political, moral, and scientific thought for the whole world.  Their opponents will trot out the usual accusations of racism and bigotry.  But the petitioners understand that Western errors in philosophy are not going to be addressed by a slapdash course in Hinduism – the educational equivalent of a meal of tandoori chicken.  Kant’s errors must be addressed by Kant’s opponents; Pieper, Maritain, Pope John Paul II, Alasdair MacIntyre.

The political reason to study the West is not to promote our current predilections, but to understand what they are, where they came from, what they might have been had we taken other routes, and what they might yet become, for better or for worse.

But there are nearer and better reasons for the course. The great majority of students at Stanford speaks English as a first language, and will live in the United States. All of the rest speak English as a second language, and among them will be many who speak another European language. If they are ever going to fall in love with poetry or with our treasures of plays and novels, it will almost certainly be the English.  “Multiculturalists,” those who peddle the tandoori chicken rather than Sanskrit, are not going to replace close study of the Old Testament with close study of the Rig-Veda.  They replace it with nothing.  An English speaker who fails to learn English poetry is not going to learn poetry in Urdu.

The same goes for other areas of cultural achievement. If you cannot be bothered to learn who Augustine and Thomas Aquinas were, you are probably not going to try to figure out the precise differences between Buddha and Lao-Tzu. That is not to say anything about those men and their merits.  It is simply a fact.  Stanford is in California, not Thailand.

If you cannot be moved to curiosity by a hundred thousand works in your native tongue and in the languages that influenced it; if you turn your head away from the First Baptist Church on your own Main Street, and all the other churches and their schools, and from Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam and Bach’s Passion According to Saint Matthew, then you are simply fooling yourself if you think you can be immersed in eastern civilizations without learning the original languages and living in India or China for thirty years and worshiping in their temples. Otherwise, you will not even rise to the level of the dilettante.

The irony is that only someone who actually has a culture is prepared to learn about another; as a master in the grammar of his native tongue is prepared to learn another.  But these days we prefer our education to be like our politics: superficial and silly.


  • Anthony M. Esolen

    Anthony M. Esolen is a professor of English at Providence College and a writer for the Claremont Review of Books, Magnificat, Crisis Magazine, The Catholic Thing and Touchstone Magazine, where he is a senior editor.

5 thoughts on “Hey, Stanford: ‘Western Civ Has Gotta Grow’

  1. I debunked this mythic chanting of Jesse Jackson more than two decades ago in my book, The Myth of Political Correctness. Jackson wasn’t chanting this. The students were chanting about “Western Culture” (the name of the course), not Western Civ (CIV is the name of the course they wanted). Both Jackson and the students emphasized that they were part of Western culture. And CIV was really a high-quality course with a broad range of Western works. The problem is that Stanford replaced CIV with IHUM to reduce the workload on students and make it more uniform, and then replaced IHUM with a one-quarter course on “Thinking Matters” to give students more freedom. The problem at Stanford is dumbing down courses to make college more appealing to students, not shifting from Western Civ to more diverse courses. Unfortunately, a lot of essays nowadays such as this one are like our politics: silly, superficial, and inaccurate.

    Here’s the link to the chapter in my book.

    1. Both motivations can, and do, operate concurrently; they are not mutually exclusive. Also, this comprehensive account of the Western Culture/CIV issue at Stanford suggests the primacy of the political motivation: “The larger political implications that people read into Stanford’s debate derived from the fact that the move to change the course began with a complaint from the Stanford Black Student Union, which, in testimony before the Senate’s committee on undergraduate studies, called the course “racist” and claimed that the core list failed to reflect the needs of the many black students who had been recruited to Stanford during recent years. This complaint was voiced during the spring of 1986, a year before the publication of Bloom’s and Hirsch’s books. The union noted that the core list included no works by black writers — though sometimes a single text such as Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth or Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man would appear on an individual syllabus. The union’s charge was quickly followed by complaints from groups representing Hispanic students and feminists, both of whom claimed that the course was biased against their particular interests.”

    2. Well now, that changes everything, doesn’t it? They were chanting “Western Culture’s got to go,” and they subjected the course to politically motivated demands. The end result, arrived at quickly enough, was the nothing that now prevails. The question right now is what to do about the current nescience and oblivion. I’ve been a part of this fight at my own school for more than 25 years. I see nothing particularly “silly” about trying to recover knowledge that not so long ago would have been taken for granted as the possession of any educated person.

  2. Outstanding. As far as I am concerned this argument is decisive, and so complete that a 20-page edition could add nothing.

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