“Hey, hey, ho, ho, the mere option of studying Western culture’s got to go.”
Those aren’t the words but the spirit of what a group of Stanford students is saying to classmates who are “elitist” and “racist” enough to want to study Western history.
In February the editors of the Stanford Review, an independent campus publication, published a manifesto embracing Western values and announcing a petition to put Western civilization back into the core curriculum. Stanford abolished that course in 1988, a year after Jesse Jackson marched students around campus chanting against the topic. Currently Stanford offers the class to a tiny fraction of its 7,000 students. The only Western civilization survey course is carefully locked away inside the “Structured Liberal Education” (SLE) program, where a cohort of 90 students opt to study the liberal arts.
Those who signed the pro-Western civilization petition met a barrage of unflattering (sometimes unprintable) epithets and warnings that signatories would be blacklisted and shunned from future campus leadership. One suspected—suspected, mind you—supporter was stripped from helming a support network for low-income students. Evidently his co-leaders concluded there are no good reasons a low-income student might want to study the history of the society whose economic ladder he is trying to climb.
To the surprise of the progressive left, plenty of Stanford students actually do want to read the great works of Western culture. The petition attracted 370 signatures, more than enough to earn a spot on the student ballot. The student elections commissioner tried to muscle the petition off the ballot but failed. Then a new group of anti-Western civ activists took up a new tactic: eliminate or radically revise SLE, the one place Western civilization is currently taught.
Why target Western civilization? This counter-campaign calling itself “Who’s Teaching Us?” (WTU) promotes diversity, which Western civilization—the civilization that eliminated slavery, empowered women, and introduced the idea of equality—apparently does not have enough of. WTU has drafted 24 demands to make the campus more diverse. One would subject SLE to a scorched-earth “reevaluate and reform” program. In the meantime, WTU would create an alternative to SLE that focuses on “social justice and anti-oppression scholarship, with an emphasis on works by people of color and PoC frameworks.”
WTU’s ambitions reach beyond the curriculum. It wants the people Stanford puts at the front of the classroom to be less white. Not only that, it wants the administrators to be less frequently white, and male. Among the list of demands is the injunction that the next president and provost should be neither white nor “cisgender” males.
The group also wants Stanford to hire at least ten new tenure-track ethnic studies professors and to pledge immediately—before any of these new professors are hired or receive student evaluations or teaching performance assessments—the university’s “commitment to the retention of these professors.” It ignores, as the editors of the Stanford Review point out, that “Stanford’s faculty is more diverse than that of the average American college, and Stanford hires disproportionate numbers of minorities relative to the number of minorities who graduate with doctorates.” WTU appears fine with disproportionality so long as it favors “minorities.” It proposes that the student body should have “at least…proportional representation of minority group members.”
Lest Stanford’s currently white-dominated faculty accidentally offend students, WTU would create a system for all Stanford community members to report anonymously “microaggressions” that faculty commit; these microaggressions would be classified as “Acts of Intolerance” (that is, hate speech) and departments would be required to consider these records when evaluating professors. Stanford already requires every student to take a course on “Engaging Diversity,” but Who’s Teaching Us would require a second such class. It would reform both diversity courses so that they focus only on “power, privilege, and systems of oppression.” WTU’s position seems to be that no one may learn about another culture—even to appreciate it—without fixating on how that culture was victimized and oppressed.
WTU’s proposed shelter of safe space, sadly, cages students into narrow identity studies and bars them from accessing many of the great works and accomplishments of history. Its proposals reduce knowledge to personal experiences and would prevent even the remaining remnant of liberal arts students from studying the works that formed the culture that Stanford students live and work in.
If WTU truly wants to further diversity at Stanford, probably the single best thing it could do is to support the Stanford Review’s call for a Western civilization requirement. There are 579 distinct courses that meet Stanford’s “Engaging Diversity” requirement. There is none available to the entire student body that surveys the history of the first culture to appreciate intellectual diversity and enshrine intellectual liberty in law. That’s a history lesson all colleges and universities should learn.
Rachelle Peterson is director of research projects at the National Association of Scholars.