Stanford's core `canon' debate ends in compromise
Palo Alto, Calif. — STANFORD University's ``great debate'' is over - and Western civilization will survive. Maybe. Last Friday, after two years of often-heated exchanges among faculty members over the way Western traditions and ideas are taught - an issue that spilled onto editorial pages across the country - the Stanford faculty senate and more than 100 students stood and applauded a compromise decision: Both a core set of classics and works treating the issues of race, class, gender, and at least one non-European culture will be taught to all Stanford freshmen.
``Culture, Ideas, and Values'' (CIV) replaces the ``Western Culture'' requirement, a student favorite since 1980, but one that came under increasing attack by minority students and sympathetic faculty for a narrow ``male, Eurocentric'' approach to Western civilization.
The CIV satisfies both those faculty members worried about a loss of the particular shaping dynamic and ideas of the West, and those who want to show the influence nontraditional groups have had.
The ``core list'' of mandated works will be retained but drop from 15 to six - Plato, the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, Augustine, Machiavelli, Rousseau, and Marx. These will be taught as a ``common intellectual experience'' through specific books - ``The Republic,'' Isaiah, ``The Prince''- or themes - ``democracy and discourse,'' ``self-knowledge,'' ``imperialisms'' - or a combination.
The core list is to be reviewed each year. (Thus Shakespeare and Dante can be rotated in, a professor says.)
Professors may decide individually how to include race, minority, class, and cultural issues in the new course, but they must include them.
The compromise surprised many faculty, who only hours earlier had been expecting another bitter, drawn-out debate.
William Chace of the humanities department, a leader in the fight to retain a core group of Western religious, philosophical, and literary works, told the Monitor later:
``We've come a long way in this process. We've maintained historical apprehension and common readings. I won't be unhappy if our students get to know very well Plato and Augustine.''
Craig Heller of the biology department, who chaired the committee to broaden the old requirement, said the compromise is ``responsive to the needs of students and interests of faculty, and recognizes that our American culture derives from many groups, not just Europeans, and that our students are moving into a global society.''
While the compromise seems simple, it is the result of months of proposals, counterproposals, petitions, meetings, student demonstrations, amendments, and straw votes over issues of language, race, symbols, the politics of academic disciplines, and scholarship.
Secretary of Education William J. Bennett launched into the discussion, commenting that the impulse to broaden the Western culture course was not a result of ``academic freedom, but of academic intimidation.''
The New York Times did a major story on the subject, as did Newsweek in an article titled ``Say Goodnight, Socrates.''
Some faculty members think the Stanford issue prefigures a larger social and cultural debate over how to teach the origins and influences of the West in an America that is becoming more ethnically diverse.
The Stanford student body itself is one-third minority, and the impulse for change came mainly from the Black Student Union.
The debate also parallels public concern about student ignorance, and a perceived unmooring of the structures of knowledge and learning in colleges. Allan Bloom's best seller ``The Closing of the American Mind'' is an example.
A Stanford professor commented: ``I'm not surprised the public is worried. They look at the faculty at a school with the prestige of this one and say, `Hey, if they can't agree on what's important to know, who can?'''
The Stanford administration sees the compromise as proving that the discussion and shaping of knowledge in higher education are still healthy.
The issue heated up last December when a special faculty committee voted to do away with the ``canon,'' or core list, of 15 mostly European texts all Western culture courses drew from, as well as the title of the course, which they said was a subtle form of cultural one-upmanship. A new CIV course would include more texts by women and minorities and examine how (or if) the West was influenced by non-European cultures.
Other faculty, most of them in the humanities, said the CIV proposal reflected a ``self-defeating lack of precision.'' They agreed to include more women and minorities but demanded that the course be anchored in the ideas and values of Europe and the Western classics.
CIV proponents did not want to be that explicit: So the debate went. In February the faculty senate voted narrowly to retain ancient and medieval cultures in the new CIV. In March they voted 23 to 20 to retain a core list. Faculty argued 35 minutes in one meeting over whether the word ``America'' implied ``nationalism.''
The unresolved issue - and one that will rise again, though both sides at Stanford have essentially dropped it, according to faculty members - is the origin of American values. ``That's the debate,'' says English professor George Dekker, ``being aboveboard about where this society got most of its cultural and social institutions. Not to idolize Europe, but to develop a historical understanding of where we mainly come from.''
But William King, president of the Black Student Union and a prominant student backer of CIV, disagrees. ``The debate before this group is not the destruction or preservation of Western history but simply the acknowledgment that the West as we know it is not European but international in its origin and tradition,'' he said in a speech to the faculty.
Carl Degler, a Pulitzer Prize-winning American historian, responded from a prepared speech:
``Few historians of the United States believe that the culture of this country has been seriously influenced by ideas from Africa, China, Japan, or indigenous North America .... That the people from those origins have shaped in profound ways the culture of this country, no historian could deny. [But] we are a part of the West, not because this country received Italians, Scots, Germans, Greeks, Irish, Poles, and Scandinavians within its borders, but because the language, religions, insti-tutions, laws, customs, literature, and - yes - the prejudices of this country were drawn overwhelmingly from Europe.''
History professor Judith Brown told the Monitor that teaching only European works ``was not making sense intellectually. It wasn't good to label certain books as great compared with other works. Privately, we might think they are. But it undercuts some students.''
Other opponents of the early CIV proposal, such as English professor Albert Gelpi, say the issue is not culture. The effort is an attempt by the social sciences to gain the upper hand over the humanities.
After the meeting, Dr. Gelpi told the Monitor, ``The compromise is better than the original document. It insists clearly on a shared interest. And the annual review is important. But something of the same debate may go on each year, and we humanists have to be vigilant on the side of turning people to authors and texts.''
Mary Dillard, a junior, felt the original proposal ``didn't go far enough. The problem is cultural arrogance, and you don't end that simply by watering down a course with a few new authors.''
The required course will still be taught through the same ``tracks,'' or themes. Tracks include ``great works,'' ``history,'' ``values, technology, science, and society,'' ``philosophy,'' and ``conflict and change.''