News & Politics

Stanford Students Petition to Bring Back Western Civilization

“Hey hey, ho ho — Western Civ has got to go.” Back in the late 1980s, Stanford University led the movement for colleges to remove mandatory western civilization courses. But now a group of Stanford students is petitioning the school to bring them back. A request authored by The Stanford Review asks that all students be required to study the history and heritage of ancient Greece, medieval and modern Europe, and America.

Western societies forged literature from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar to Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction in America; technologies from the steam engine to the Internet; and values like free speech, due process, skepticism of authority, rationalism, and equality under the law. A mere two quarters would impart this history to generations of students, documenting the stories of Western nations, politics, culture, philosophy, economics, literature, art, values, and science from Ancient Greece to the present.

That’s an ambitious task for one college course, but not impossible. The students make excellent arguments as to why a liberal education needs a unifying survey course, taught to all students, and why Western Civ should be that course. The Review emphasizes that this course would not whitewash history, and would deal with the complex problems of racism, slavery, imperialism, and the alleged silencing of dissent that have plagued the West. The paper also encourages students to sign the petition even if they oppose the class, since the petition would give students a say in how they are to be educated.

Peter Berkowitz, a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and a member of the board of the National Association of Scholars, praised the petition as a step toward ending the “College Dark Ages.” Berkowitz laments that college professors too often fail to give their students a liberal education. They either teach what amounts to a progressive political agenda, or focus on a niche specialty that has little application to the world outside college.

If the principles of liberal education and considerations of enlightened public interest governed decisions about academic life at our universities, it would not fall to undergraduates to instruct professors in the fundamentals of a truly liberal education and to entreat their teachers to provide it.

While it is sad that students have to ask their teachers to bring back a classical education, the very fact this petition exists should give Americans hope that there still is a demand for real understanding about where our values come from.

The petition requires that 5 percent of the student body, or just 350 of the campus’s nearly 7,000 undergraduates, sign it in order for next fall’s incoming undergrads to vote on it. The Review did not respond to a request as to how many may have already signed.