COLUMN ONE : Stanford Weathers the Storm : Curriculum revised to introduce freshmen to their intellectual and moral heritage. It has brought both satisfaction and continuing ferment.


Stanford University’s intellectual atmosphere is calm again.

After two years of violent storms over its revision of the curriculum for freshmen, during which former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett and the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal repeatedly hurled ideological lightning bolts at this rich and placidly beautiful university, the rhetorical cold front has passed through.

The controversy arose over the introductory courses known collectively to older alumni as “Western Civilization” and more recently as “Western Culture.” Such courses are an attempt, common to many American universities since World War I, to explain to incoming students the assumptions of their intellectual and moral heritage and, sometimes, to question those assumptions.

Stanford’s effort--catalyzed by the protests of minority students--was to broaden the courses to include writings from “women, minorities and persons of color” and, incidentally, Americans, none of which had been on the reading lists. It stirred, first on the campus, then in the nation, a tempestuous debate over the very meaning of civilization and culture in the United States today.


Now the freshmen--currently 1,565 of them--for whom the changes were designed are finishing the first year of the revised curriculum. And though the heavy weather has passed, a look into classrooms and faculty offices shows signs both of intellectual satisfaction and of continuing intellectual ferment.

Bennett, the Journal editorial page staff and others on the political and cultural right had accused Stanford of undermining Western civilization and culture in a return to the “discredited” radicalism of the 1960s.

“Experience even in the communist world has stilled the dreams of the 1960s, but at least one place continues to revere them--the ivory foxhole known as the American academy,” the Journal said in an editorial of Dec. 22, 1988. “A good example is Stanford University, which earlier this year caved in to political pressure and cashiered its popular ‘Western Culture’ course requirement for freshmen.”

Supporters of the changes replied that Stanford was merely trying to prepare its students to understand and cope with the rapidly changing America and world they were growing up into.

“Stanford is trying seriously to consider how one should teach not only in the United States but particularly in California,” said Keith Baker, an intellectual historian at the school. “Universities exist to raise serious questions, critical questions, about our cultural heritage--what it is and how to teach about it.

“One of the problems with American culture is that students bring together a whole lot of assumptions, without knowing how those assumptions have been created and how there are tensions between them.

“Stanford is saying this is a multicultural society, we live in a multicultural world. How do we best make sense of it for students? How do we best prepare students to live in a multicultural world?”

At one level, the debate could be seen as an intra-faculty, inter-departmental struggle for students. (More students = more faculty = more prestige.) At another, it could be viewed as just another setting of the neo-conservatives’ running morality play, in which they delight in attacking “relativists” wherever they think they have found them.

Yet, on another level, some participants in the debate agreed, the question Stanford was trying to confront was that put by J. Hector St. John Crevecoeur in his “Letters from An American Farmer” (1782): “What, then, is the American, this new man?”

Compromise Adopted

In the spring of 1988, the Faculty Senate, after rejecting proposals for more sweeping changes, adopted a compromise to add works by women and writers from previously unrepresented ethnic groups to seven of the standard introductory courses and to create a robustly unorthodox new course, “Europe and the Americas,” to introduce freshmen to the experiences of their world in a non-traditional way. The eight courses together were named “Cultures, Ideas, and Values,” promptly nicknamed “CIV.”

Late in the winter quarter of this year the freshmen were nearing the end of the second of the three 10-week sessions in CIV that constitute, for students in the humanities, the introduction to the intellectual experiences of the rest of their Stanford years, and for many of the students in science and engineering the heart of their non-science education here.

The green, expansive campus was drenched by the sun under a luminous blue sky, though it had been unseasonably cold after a heavy rain. The raucous scrapping of the scrub jays in the live oak trees challenged the whir of passing bicycles for the loudest noise on campus. Students moved from class to class among the famous low sandstone buildings of the Main Quadrangle.

The Memorial Church and many of the more than 400 Neo-Romanesque arches of the building porches and their connecting cloister walkways had been shored up after damage from the Oct. 17, 1989, Loma Prieta earthquake. The quake closed the church, the Stanford Museum, and many other buildings, and caused, in all, $160 million in damage. Professors had been doubled up in offices; some classes were meeting in smaller rooms.

In one of them one afternoon, 18 freshmen from the “Europe and the Americas” course were talking with their instructor, Debbie Gordon, about “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” They had just read selections from Alexis de Toqueville’s “Democracy in America”; they would next read Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” This is the course that drew most of the fire from outside. It proceeds more by juxtaposition of texts than by chronological exposition. It includes not only readings from the Bible and St. Augustine’s “Confessions” but also such works as Frantz Fanon’s “The Wretched of the Earth,” Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” and Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart.”

The instructor went around the room asking each student in turn to talk about “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” She had been somewhat apprehensive, for its subject--slavery--might, she thought, make some of the students, especially the blacks, uneasy. The question of race and color is not abstract at Stanford. For the last decade and more the school, which always accepted both women and men, has been making a strenuous effort to recruit minorities, and now the freshman class is more than one-third minority--18.1% Asian, 8.3% Latino, 8.4% black. But the discussion seemed both matter-of-fact and engaged.

“Religion’s never been a part of my life, so it was interesting to see how Christianity helped Tom survive,” a white male student said.

A black woman discussed at some length how the whites in the old South were utterly dependent upon their black slaves.

“I thought it was ironic that the slaves were true Christians, yet the whites used Christianity to justify slavery,” said another young man, also a member of an ethnic minority.

The instructor noted that the author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, wrote about the way the “institutionalized racism” exploited blacks for economic gain, yet many whites were shown as loving the blacks.

“It’s almost as if slaves were pets,” said a white male in a tone of wonder.

“Well, what does that say about that kind of power?” the instructor asked.

“It says, ‘I’m doing what’s best for you because you don’t know what’s best for yourself,’ ” replied a black male.

A white male observed that he thought for the longest time that Stowe was black. “It seemed weird a white woman would have the guts,” he said.

The discussion ranged for an hour and a half. Debbie Gordon brought in such topics as regionalism in American culture, religion as an instrument of both oppression and liberation, the importance of the concept of self-worth in a society as mobile as the American. The dialogue moved easily.

Incoming Students

Stanford is one of the most selective schools in the country. Its freshmen arrive with wildly varying degrees of sophistication and education, but it is safe to say they are all bright.

“What distinguishes these students,” said Mary Weisling, an instructor in the CIV history course who has taught elsewhere, “is that they know how to use their time. They usually have a specific goal in mind. They find a way to keep integrating their experiences. They arrive here knowing they should keep their appointments. At UC Berkeley, for instance, they are no less bright, but a lot of them in the first quarter of their freshman year don’t keep their appointments.”

The following week a different group of students from the “Europe and the Americas” course was discussing, with Debbie Gordon, “Heart of Darkness.” Half the students had read the book in high school English classes, where it was generally presented as a parable of a voyage into the soul’s interior. Here the students were asked to look at it as a tale of imperialism and, indeed, racism, the exploitation by Belgium of the Congo.

“There is not necessarily one way to read a book,” said the instructor. Which is the challenge that “Europe and the Americas” presents to conventional American methods of teaching an introduction to culture and civilization.

In his book, “Culture and Truth,” one of the founders of the course, anthropology professor Renato Rosaldo from Tucson High School and Harvard College, wrote: ". . . Work in cultural studies sees human worlds as constructed through historical and political processes, and not as brute timeless facts of nature. It is marvelously easy to confuse ‘our local culture’ with ‘universal human nature.’ ”

Or, as his co-founder, Mary Louise Pratt, professor of Spanish and Portuguese, put it:

“We absolutely don’t believe in the superiority of Western culture. We don’t believe that the academy should exclude the critique of the West. Is not Western civilization itself (in its several stages of development) a critique of the West?”

“I am very committed,” she said, “to getting people to think relationally about Western culture.”

Primary Sources

Unlike many colleges, which habitually use narrative survey textbooks in introductory courses in “Western Civilization” or “World Culture” or the like, Stanford insists upon teaching in these courses from primary sources. So when it became known to the outside world that Stanford was thinking of changing the required reading list for freshmen, the dispute arose over which list of books should be the approved “canon” of texts that all educated Americans should know, or indeed whether there is such a canon.

In its 1988 editorial, titled derisively “The Stanford Mind,” the Wall Street Journal attacked “Europe and the Americas” as riding “the main hobbyhorses of today’s political left--race, gender and class. The West is perceived not through the evolution of such ideas as faith and justice, but through the prism of sexism, racism and the faults of its ruling class.” The Journal invoked the name of Allan Bloom, author of “The Closing of the American Mind,” as lamenting “the political conformity that now prevails throughout the American academy in the name of a fraudulent ‘diversity.’ ”

“As the West is ‘phased out’ in Palo Alto,” the Journal concluded, “it’s clear enough what’s happening to Stanford’s mind.”

In fact, the West was not being “phased out” at Stanford. In addition to “Europe andthe Americas,” which this year has about 100 students, the other seven CIV courses offered to freshmen remained much as they were: literature and the arts, great works, history, Western thought and literature, structured liberal education, philosophy and Western thought and technology.

All eight courses have in common these readings: the Hebrew and the Christian Bible, a classical Greek philosopher, an early Christian thinker, a Renaissance dramatist and Karl Marx.

In the previous “Western Culture” survey there had been 15 readings in common, including Homer, Machiavelli, Galileo, Voltaire and Freud, with others recommended.

“This is regressive,” Education Secretary Bennett said of the changes. “What are they doing?

In practice, the seven continuing courses teach pretty much what they taught before, with additions, such as readings from the Koran or “Equiano’s Travels,” the autobiography, greatly popular in the 18th Century, of Olaudah Equiano, the former slave captured in Africa; or Mary Wollstonecraft’s “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” (1792).

The 15 works in the previous “Western Culture” courses were not, in fact, a carefully thought-out “canon,” but at least partly a list arrived at through faculty horse-trading. The various humanities departments that teach these basic courses each strove to use them as introductions, or lures, to bring students as majors into their departments. And professors here as elsewhere tend to prefer to teach what they know best.

Love and Duty

Only a small number of professors, nearly all of them from the humanities, teach these freshman survey courses. As it is, most of the professors who taught the previous courses are teaching them in their slightly revised versions. There is no career advantage or monetary gain to be had in teaching the freshman surveys. Those who do it, do it for love or duty. It is hard, because one must simplify and generalize. One can take intelligence for granted in the students, but not knowledge.

The professors are assisted by teachers like Debbie Gordon and Mary Weisling, who are hired from the outside to conduct the smaller sessions of discussion that are intended to illuminate and amplify the professors’ lectures. For all its wealth, Stanford does not have, in its humanities departments, enough younger instructors to do this job.

Shortage of faculty, and of money, stand in the way of creating new, experimentalcourses for the CIV series. The expenses created by the earthquake, constraints on increases in tuition (which will be $20,210 with room and board next academic year) and federal government pressure to reduce the administrative payments given to universities for the federal grants they receive are squeezing Stanford. It has announced a 13% budget cut--$22 million from a $175-million annual base--over the next 15 months.

Nonetheless, Thomas A. Wasow, dean of undergraduate studies, said, “We have taken the first steps in what I hope will be widespread curricular reform. I see developing a multicultural curriculum as one of my goals.” The Irvine Foundation has given Stanford $1 million to that end, he said. Stanford is looking for an Asian-American to teach about the Asian-American experience, and it is also seeking someone who can do the same for the African-American.

“I believe in curricular ferment,” Stanford President Donald Kennedy said. It is good to “fumigate the catalogue,” he said.

Is Stanford undergoing these changes for moral or practical reasons, or for both?

“For myself, practical, in the sense that I want Stanford students ready for the world as it will be, not as some would like it to remain,” he replied.

A Good High School

In 1959 James Bryant Conant, former president of Harvard University and former U.S. ambassador to West Germany, undertook a survey of American high schools for the Carnegie Corp. When it was over and published, he said there was one sure-fire way of telling a good high school:

“It’s where the teachers are excited about doing something new. It doesn’t really matter what it is, as long as it’s new and the teachers are interested.”

His remark applies to Stanford, notably to “Europe and the Americas.” It scored highest of all the tracks in the students’ evaluation when it was introduced last year. No student questioned for this article found much fault in it, and many were enthusiastic.

“I tend to be a very concrete thinker. ‘Europe and the Americas’ helps me stretch my mind. The students in this course are very excited about it,” said Bridget Kaman, who came to Stanford from St. Charles (Ill.) High School.

“What we’re studying is like what graduate students are studying,” added Casey Lynch of Atherton, from Sacred Heart High School in Menlo Park. She was referring to what Renato Rosaldo likes to call the “juxtaposition of texts,” the reading of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” for instance, right after “Democracy in America.”

“Juxtaposing texts is like juxtaposing colors,” Rosaldo had said. “They both change by the juxtaposition.”

Marya Gilborn of Hunter College High School in New York City said she had taken courses in the “great books” and philosophy in high school and liked the Stanford course because “I was frustrated by philosophical theory . . . studying the origins of justice doesn’t seem too important to me as seeing how it actually works.”

Campbell Mathewson of Lake Washington High School in Seattle said he was fascinated by the different points of view brought out by the books they were reading and the comments on them from his fellow freshmen of different colors and backgrounds, but thought “the origins of justice is important.” He regretted missing the traditionally taught “great books” and would go back and read them.

Initial Opposition

Which is just the point made by Ronald A. Rebholz, a popular professor of English who chairs the “great works” course in CIV and opposed the changes when they were made.

“I don’t like ‘Europe and the Americas,’ ” he said. “It really does slight the ancient and medieval worlds to the point where the students are going to be ignorant of their cultural and intellectual heritage.”

Rebholz was impressed, however, by the reports of student enthusiasm for the course. “It’s not easy to get freshmen seriously engaged with things,” he said. “Their lives are so hectic.”

As part of the changes, he added to his own course “The Conference of the Birds,” by Farid ud-Din Attar, a work of medieval Islamic mysticism. “It is stunningly beautiful,” he said, “and a great addition to the course. I have learned a lot.”

Jessica Coope, one of the instructors in the CIV history course, last fall gave as one of the new elements in it a lecture on Islamic and Jewish influences on Europe. “We got a sense of the tragedy of the destruction of culture,” said her colleague Mary Weisling. “The students were terribly affected.”

“The Stanford students know (because of their diversity) that a sense of the values in each culture is so important,” she said.

Most of the minority students whose protests helped push the curriculum changes to the forefront of the Stanford agenda have graduated. For the moment the leaders of the various student minority groups are watching the changes and seem to be reasonably content with them.

Valerie Minor, a sophomore from Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia and co-chairman of the Black Student Union’s education rights committee, which was the spearhead of the student protest, said that “Stanford has made a commitment to multicultural education, and that is fantastic, but the students have to keep pushing.”

Kennell Jackson, a professor of history lecturing in “Europe and the Americas,” had said that until recently the black students here had not had a sense of “ownership.” Do you feel at home here? Minor was asked.

“Most of the time I do; sometimes it’s very frustrating,” she said. “The real challenge here is to hold your roots to reality, to remember where you came from. It’s very beautiful here. It’s very easy to become complacent.”

Minor wants to “work with people, hopefully in service to the black community. You know, lots of people have families at 19.” She is thinking about going into high school teaching. The leaders of most American universities keep pressing on their students the worthiness of public service, even as many students are relentlessly careerist.

The Revolution’

Looking back at the debate, one of Stanford’s luminaries in the humanities, history professor emeritus Gordon A. Craig, tolerantly observed that “these educational reforms take place every 15 years or so.” Craig, a specialist in German history and author of “The Germans,” was one of the founders of the replaced “Western Culture.” He and others started it in 1980 because, after its predecessor had been thrown out in 1969 in what some teachers call simply “the revolution,” students needed to know who and where they were.

“They didn’t have any chronological sense. They didn’t know whether Jesus or Bismarck came first,” said Craig (who, with his modified mutton-chop whiskers, looks not unlike Bismarck).

Craig, who was reading the Roman poet Tibullus in Latin when his interviewer arrived, said he thought “Western Culture” should have been retained, with other courses on other cultures, which were essential, added to it.

“When you get down to it, the mainstream of culture (that fed American civilization) came from the West,” he said.

The matter would be put slightly differently, perhaps, by his next-door office neighbor, Keith Baker, the intellectual historian, who came this year from the University of Chicago and is teaching the history CIV course, of which his history colleague Paul A. Robinson said, “This is the CIV program at its best.”

“Somehow Stanford was seen to be caving in to all these forces that seemed to some to be overwhelming American values,” Baker said. “It wasn’t doing that at all; it was asking crucial questions. . . .

“It’s terribly important to convey to students the way the world--their world--has been created. It represents human choices, human imagination, human conflict. Any introductory course has to do that, because students take so much for granted. You have to show them those assumptions haven’t always been there, that they have been created, and could have been otherwise.”