DEBATE is swirling around at Stanford University over the ``Western Culture'' program all its freshmen must take. We come down on the side of keeping the program, but revising the reading list to reflect a more inclusive view of American culture. Stanford's list has been criticized for representing primarily the work of European males, and many who favor retaining the program argue, as we do, for inclusion of works by women and racial minorities. On either side of the would-be revisers are those who think the whole list should be abolished, and those who complain that ``Plato and Dante are being trashed.''
Unsurprisingly, US Education Secretary William Bennett has leaped into the fray, charging that those who would abolish the list ``are moving confidently and swiftly into the late 1960s.'' He adds, ``Why anybody would want to do that intentionally I don't know.''
It would be unfortunate if such polemics get in the way of constructive debate. This kind of reading list helps order and balance a student's intellectual experience, and provides a cultural tour d'horizon which if not perfect at least includes significant highlights.
On the pragmatic side, we note that America is a Western nation. There is value in knowing your way around the culture of your own country, whatever your own ethnicity. To fail to do so is like willfully refusing to learn the main streets and avenues of your hometown. A program like Stanford's helps empower students who may feel cut off from the cultural mainstream.
There is a political side to this, too. Non-Western cultures - notably Africa's - have had immense influence on the music Americans listen to, the art they prefer, the foods and recreation they enjoy. But all US citizens are heirs of a political tradition rooted in the West, in Greece, in England, in the France of the Enlightenment. The writers of these places are worth knowing about, and they have had a bigger influence on the United States than did, say, Confucius.
America is not a European nation; it has had a distinctive multiethnic experience. Universities will want to reflect that in their standard reading lists. We like the idea of including Martin Luther King's speeches, and Emily Dickinson's poetry - to cite two nominees for inclusion on Stanford's list - not simply as representatives of blacks and women, but as substantial contributions, distinctive statements within the American experience.