Bennett Draws Fire in Stanford Talk Assailing Course Change
In a speech that provoked angry rebuttals from administrators and some students, U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett charged Monday that Stanford University’s recent change in Western Culture studies was “an unfortunate capitulation to a campaign of pressure politics and intimidation.”
Bennett told a campus audience that protests by minority students scared the university into dropping a mandatory reading list of 15 classics from the course required for all freshmen. In its place, teachers will now choose the books and topics each year and include issues of racism and sexism.
Supporters of the so-called core reading list are afraid of being called racists, Bennett alleged, but they know “a great university was brought low by the very forces which modern universities came into being to oppose--ignorance, irrationality and intimidation.”
Stanford’s president, Donald Kennedy, responded strongly in a prepared statement, saying that Bennett was “either ill-informed or irresponsible” and that the secretary was using “the privilege of his bully pulpit to bully rather than to engage the issue.”
Kennedy and others stressed that the curriculum change was a compromise resulting from two years of highly academic discussions, not a response to student rallies.
Bennett, they charged, appeared to be reacting to distorted reading of news accounts, particularly about a January, 1987, march attended by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, now running for President, at which some students chanted, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Culture’s got to go.” Stanford officials said Jackson did not join that chant.
Even some professors who originally wanted the reading list retained blasted Bennett’s speech. Among them was English professor Ronald Rebholz, who complained that Bennett “is spending the taxpayers’ money in the last year of his reign to cause trouble on issues he knows nothing about.” Rebholz said he is not really happy with the course change, but he could “live with it and try to build on it.”
At a press conference at San Francisco International Airport a few hours before the speech, Bennett dismissed such criticism of him as “nonsense.” He said Stanford, like most universities, was controlled by a “left-wing political agenda,” which he described as a combination of Marxism and feminism.
His speech attracted a crowd of about 600, overflowing the auditorium in the School of Education. His comments were met with a mixture of applause and hissing at times, but there was no demonstration against him. The overall atmosphere was polite even during a half-hour question-and-answer period.
Bennett had first ridiculed the course change as an attack on Western values and a bad precedent for the nation in a Washington speech in January, while Stanford’s Academic Senate was debating the issue.
A conservative student publication, The Stanford Review, and other conservative student groups invited him to deliver Monday’s address. Bennett said he accepted because he hoped that the Stanford faculty would reinstate the reading list.
Peter Thiel, editor of The Stanford Review, said he welcomed Bennett’s comments. Even if there was not direct intimidation, he said, the faculty may have approved the change because they became “sick and tired of the fuss.”
Bill King, president of the Black Students Union and a leader for the change, said Bennett’s remarks showed him to be “an excellent rhetorician,” but he did not think Bennett changed anybody’s opinion.
On March 31, the Academic Senate voted 39 to 4 to change the name of the course from Western Culture to Cultures, Ideas and Values and to no longer require the list of 15 masterworks in religion, philosophy, science and literature, which had been called the common intellectual glue of a Stanford education. The list, begun eight years ago, was criticized as too restrictive and for ignoring women and minorities.
However, many of the same books are likely to be required under a new procedure in which teachers annually choose texts, authors or topics. The Senate stipulated that ancient, medieval and modern history will still be studied, along with issues of race, gender and class. For next year, six of the 15 original authors or works will be studied: Plato, the Bible, St. Augustine, Machiavelli, Rousseau and Marx.
In Monday’s speech, Bennett, a former philosophy teacher, acknowledged injustices and said that Asian and African cultures should be studied too. But, he stressed, that does not diminish the importance of learning Western cultural values.
“After all, where do the concepts of rights, equality and, yes, diversity come from? It is in the West,” the secretary said, “that we have learned--over time, through struggle, after bloodshed--to stand squarely behind liberty and equality for all people. . . . But how are we to protect the West if we set about systematically robbing ourselves of opportunities to know and study it?”