MEASURED in gallons of ink used, ``the great debate'' at Stanford University - around how or whether to teach Western civilization - was one of last year's biggest education stories. And the story is not over. As Stanford - which is running neck and neck with Yale or Harvard as the nation's premier university - attempts to open up its core required liberal arts course to works by women and minorities, the school faces challenges ranging from lack of qualified professors to strong criticism of experimental courses.
What began as a small on-campus effort largely by black students to replace the popular freshman Western Culture requirement with a course less weighted by a ``male, Eurocentric'' Great Books approach - became last spring a national media debate over what the next generation of Americans should learn about their intellectual heritage: Were standards being lowered? Was the American mind at Stanford opening - or closing?
A compromise was reached in April: By 1990, the core reading list would be reduced from 16 to 5 titles; each course would have to include works on race, class, gender, and at least one non-European culture. References to ``the West'' would be reduced, as in the new title of the course ``Culture, Ideas, and Values'' (CIV).
This is a transitional year for the controversial CIV program. New courses are to be added; old courses or ``tracks'' (thematic approaches such as ``Great Works,'' history, science and technology) are to be redesigned.
The first CIV course is now being taught, and already it is under attack.
Titled ``Europe and the Americas,'' it is an examination of the West that stresses its ties to Spanish and Latin American cultures. Major Western works are read alongside Latino writers. Augustine's ``Confessions,'' for example, are read with a Navajo life testimony, and ``I ... Rigoberta Menchu,'' the autobiography of a 23-year-old Guatemalan feminist revolutionary - to compare types of ethnic self-examination.
``It's the most exciting teaching I've done in 19 years,'' says anthropology professor Renato Rosaldo, who adds that by reading such books together, ``They all get better; the Navajo becomes a book of wisdom.''
The Wall Street Journal, however, in a hammering Dec. 22 editorial, criticized an overt leftist political agenda in the course: ``rather than illuminate the West, the replacement authors mainly attack it.''
But while the Journal leaves the impression that barbarians have all but taken over Stanford, many students and most professors, even critical ones, disagree. Only 50 students are taking the new course. Further, it's the only one of its kind. Senior Isaac Barchus, a student member of the CIV review committee, says that, ``So far, no one has proposed any new or radical courses.''
Instead, what most faculty report is how difficult making the new changes will be - for both academic and practical reasons.
Departments are reluctant to spend precious resources and faculty on introductory courses. Redesigns take months. Most courses already include women and minority writers. Besides, studies show that great works were rarely adhered to in the old course anyway, in keeping with the 1980s intellectual climate of diversity in higher education.
One major problem is the requirement to show the influence of non-European cultures on the West. In American academia, few professors are capable of teaching such knowledge, particularly in pre-medieval studies. Some of the scholarship is dubious. And college departments are reluctant to hire faculty for a single course.
``It's not exactly easy to find experts on the Mongol empire,'' says history department chairman Paul Seaver.
``It's impossible to do justice to both European and a non-European culture in 30 weeks - but that's what we are trying to do,'' says English professor Robert Rebholz, who is part of a team making ``serious revisions'' in the Great Works course.
The academic debate, however, remains. Barchus says courses such as ``Europe and the Americas'' introduce concepts too advanced and volatile for 18-year-olds: ``You don't teach graduate physics to freshmen; nor should you teach advanced political concepts without enough background.''
The issue is not, many faculty say, a fight between ``liberals and conservatives,'' as the press often frames it. Several CIV opponents - historian Carl Degler and English professor Albert Gelpi - are classic liberals. Dr. Rebholz, who says CIV disintigrates common learning, is a leftist and leads an effort to remove the conservative Hoover Institution from Stanford.