Stanford Debates Its View of Western Culture

Times Education Writer

In a controversy that has attracted national attention, Stanford University's faculty is debating proposals to make the freshman Western Culture program better reflect the achievements of women and minorities. One plan, which U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett has ridiculed, would drop the required reading list that includes such classics as Plato's "Republic" and Dante's "Divine Comedy."

The debate is described by Stanford officials as the most spirited educational discussion on campus in two decades. It raises issues that include sexism, racism, the value of undergraduate requirements, and--with demonstrations by students and criticism from Bennett--political pressure.

The Faculty Senate, which has final say on the matter, is scheduled to hold its second session on the issue Thursday and may vote later this month.

"It seems to have brought more intellectual energy to the fore than any other debate I can remember," said Clayborne Carson, an associate history professor who advocates elimination of the so-called core reading list.

English professor William Chace, who wants the reading list kept but revised, said, "This is a serious issue that will affect our future and the future of our sister institutions. It is the kind of debate we want to have. There is nothing unhealthy about it."

Western civilization history was dropped as a requirement at Stanford in 1969, as many American campuses moved to less-structured curricula in the era of student protests and radical politics. Then, the political and educational pendulum returned to conservatism and Stanford in 1980 moved back toward rigorous course requirements, including three terms in Western Culture and one in a non-European subject.

All freshmen take the Western Culture courses but can choose among eight different topical tracks for the year, such as "Literature and Arts" and "Values, Technology, Science and Society."

Students in all tracks, however, are supposed to study the ancient, medieval and Renaissance, and modern eras and read the same 15 works widely recognized as masterpieces in religion, philosophy, political thought, science and literature. Those works include "Genesis" from the Bible, Machiavelli's "The Prince," and Freud's "Civilization and Its Discontents." Supporters call those books "the common intellectual glue" of a Stanford education.

University spokesmen say that opposition to that program grew as the number of black, Asian and Latino students increased. Critics say the courses present a "male, Eurocentric" view of the world by not sufficiently examining the contributions of Asian, Arabic and African cultures.

The reading list, they also complain, is an academic straitjacket even though teachers assign many additional readings, often including works by women and blacks.

As a result, a task force appointed to look at possible reforms recommended that the Western Culture program be changed to courses called "Culture, Ideas and Values." That revised program would include the study of at least one non-European culture as well as European culture, and no longer would require the core readings.

Supporters of the proposal stress, however, that many of the same books probably would still be assigned. "It's unimaginable we could teach these courses without mentioning Plato and the Bible. What we won't be doing any longer is telling each other what we must teach," said Paul Seaver, a history professor who was chairman of the reform task force.

To continue so much emphasis on European culture "not only falsifies the experience of our students but falsifies the nature of our culture, which is a lot more complex than the version we have been teaching," he said.

History professor Carson, who is editing the papers of Martin Luther King Jr., described the current core reading list as a throwback to the classical education of the 19th Century, not only because its content ignores women and minorities but also because modern American academia allows for more freedom.

"It is just not the way a modern university is run," he said. Besides, he added, some professors already ignore the required list.

The Faculty Senate's Committee on Undergraduate Studies unanimously approved the task force's ideas in January. If approved by the full Senate, the changes would go into effect in the 1989-90 school year.

Voice of Dissent

However, if Bennett has his way, the changes will never be made. At a recent meeting of the American Council of Education in Washington, D.C., Bennett sharply criticized the proposal.

"They are moving confidently and swiftly into the late 1960s. And why anybody would want to do that intentionally, I don't know," he said. Bennett added that the faculty was being intimidated by the "noisiest" of demonstrators, an apparent reference to a campus rally about the issue last year at which the Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke.

Bennett could not be reached for further comment this week, but William Kristol, his chief of staff, said that Bennett made those comments because the secretary is strongly committed to keeping the great works of Western civilization in college curricula and fears a change at Stanford could affect other schools.

Bennett is allied with such conservative critics of education as University of Chicago professor Allan Bloom, author of the best-selling book, "The Closing of the American Mind," which bemoans the rise of television and rock culture at the alleged expense of the classics and solid values.

Bennett's comments caused a backlash at Stanford even among some professors whom Bennett appeared to be supporting. "With a friend like Bennett, who needs enemies?" said Marsh McCall, a classics professor who supports a counter-proposal that would keep the reading list but expand it to include works by women and minorities. McCall said he and his allies on the issue "don't perceive ourselves as old fogies or super traditionalists in any way."

Harsh Reaction

Donald Kennedy, the university's president, reacted more harshly. "I think it is unfortunate that the secretary of education has chosen to declare his view of an issue about which he is uninformed on the basis of an outcome that is unreached," Kennedy told the Faculty Senate. "It is surely reprehensible to assert that intimidation has occurred before the fact; but is it any better to seek to influence outcomes by turning harsh rhetorical judgments against those with whom one disagrees?"

Asked about such criticisms, Bennett's aide, Kristol, said: "I don't see why he should take a vow of silence on this. Certainly they don't take a vow of silence about other institutions or about whether IBM should move its facilities out of South Africa."

Some professors would prefer no changes at all in the Western Culture program. However, participants on both sides say most opponents of the task force's ideas support the counter-proposal named after English professor Chace, who is also vice-provost for academic planning.

Its supporters say the Chace plan would revise the core list and add works by such authors as Ralph Ellison, Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf. It would also require that the Western Culture program "confront issues relating to class, ethnicity, race, religion, gender and sexual orientation."

Other Cultures

And, it would examine ways to fulfill the current additional one-term requirement in non-Western culture with more rigorous, broader courses. That requirement, also established in 1980, can be met by classes in, among others, Zen Buddhism or Modern Brazilian Fiction.

"We owe our students a grounding, a deep vocabulary, without which a person cannot function as an educated human being in the world in which we inhabit," said Chace, explaining the importance of a shared reading list.

McCall said, "I think if there is going to be something that is required of all Stanford students for one whole year, there must be some educational principle you can point to and say this is the bonding matter around which the variety spins off. That common intellectual glue is the core list."

Isaac D. Barchas, a junior majoring in classics, agreed. His essay defending the core list appeared recently in the Wall Street Journal. In an interview, Barchas said that the required reading is "the only curricula bridge between the humanities and science. It means I can discuss something with my engineering friends other than the San Francisco Giants and girls."

However, Bill King, chairman of the Black Student Union, described the Chace proposal as tokenism. "We are not looking for the addition of some token books in hopes of conceding to what they consider to be irritating minorities," said King, a senior biology major. "What we are really fighting for is for them to give credit where credit is due and to stop distorting things and saying Europe provided all of Western culture."

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