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Changed Views on Stanford's Culture Debate

By Lloyd M. KriegerLloyd M. Krieger is a senior at Stanford University. / February 22, 1989



SPEAKING as a Stanford student, I say, ``Western Culture must go!'' Let me explain. For almost two years now, Stanford has been embroiled in a historic academic debate. Should students be required to read the classics of Western civilization in the year-long Western Culture course taken by all freshmen? Or should the course become one focused on a wide variety of cultures under the new label ``Cultures, Ideas, and Values''?

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The debate spilled over from the academic senate to the editorial pages. Eventually, the change was made: The new course would combine readings from the masters of Western thought with those of ``people of color'' and those from non-Western cultures such as the Middle and Far East.

I had always been strongly on the side of retaining the core list of readings from the Western classics. There was something to be said for a thorough grasp of the patterns of thought that have shaped our society and culture. Since we were a Western society, I reasoned, we had to read the West's great books in order to understand ourselves and our surroundings.

But during the course of a summer I spent living in Europe, I encountered a Swedish woman who helped change my mind. I met Gretta through a mutual friend in Italy; my discussion with her afforded me a fresh perspective on an academic debate some seven thousand miles away.

As soon as I met Gretta, she attacked and belittled the United States. She hated our big dirty cities and our backward farming regions. Our cuisine was unsophisticated and we were all fat from our overindulgence in red meat. And, most of all, she explained how our educational system neglected the classics of history, literature, and philosophy.

The core of her criticism was that we studied ourselves at the expense of our European forefathers. We knew all about the American Revolution but nothing about the history of Swedish royalty. We had read Hawthorne but not Kafka.

I resisted the sophomoric temptation to argue that if it were not for the United States, she and her family would be speaking Russian by now. I tried to stick to the facts. I explained all about my university's Western Culture requirement - carefully neglecting the changes that had already obliterated it - and how I indeed had read the European masters.

But Gretta did not accept that I had read enough of the ``great books.'' When I mentioned Nietzsche, she quizzed me about Weber. I said Aristotle and she grilled me about Aristophanes.

During the course of that long dinner, I changed my position on Stanford's Western Culture debate. I realized that the West's great books are more Gretta's than mine. And while the patterns of European thought have of course helped shape American culture, they are only a part of our cultural base.

What gives America its richness is that we have selectively accepted and rejected cultural fragments from all those peoples who have settled here. We have woven our own cultural fabric. And we have not imported all of our textiles from Europe.

In my frustration with Gretta, I came to see that we cannot live up to an agenda imposed upon us by another society. We must set our own ideals, and these must reflect what we are - an elaborate mixture. College students should study America for all its facets. We should read the works of Asians and Indians and Latinos along with those of the Greeks and Germans. We should understand the Pacific as well as the Atlantic.

Let the Europeans restrict themselves to the works of the European masters. We are creatures of the New World and have plenty of other books to read. There can no longer be any question: Western Culture must go.