Western Civilization Ballot Initiative

It’s time to revive Stanford’s humanities core.



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Stanford alumni develop technologies that transform societies. But what happens when, as one Oxford study suggests, automation imperils 47% of American jobs? How should governments respond as driverless cars and drones proliferate? How should Apple balance privacy and security?

Some of you will build businesses that push us to answer these questions; others will address technology’s implications through policy and research. But without a solid historical, literary, and ethical grounding, our current Stanford education fails to prepare us for these decisions that lie ahead.

History brims with technological revolutions and their economic, cultural and political impacts. But Stanford has fewer humanities requirements than any other elite college. You can earn a diploma in CS without understanding how the Industrial Revolution transformed European politics. You might study “The Language of Food” in Thinking Matters, yet you never engage with texts that guided Western history and values. We think every student needs that opportunity.

Today, the Stanford Review proposes the introduction of a two-quarter Western Civilization requirement, replacing Thinking Matters.

Why focus on one civilization? One reason IHUM fell apart was because professors disliked sacrificing depth for breadth. Exploring one culture, in depth, invigorates faculty and ensures students have substantial, interdisciplinary historical context.

Western civilization stands out because it underpins our society. Even great freedom fighters – writers like Du Bois and de Beauvoir – defended their rights by expanding the Greeks’ philosophical canons. Locke and Mill still set the standard we use to judge political legitimacy. Western culture’s sheer explanatory power makes it worthy of special attention.

The development of industry, political rights, and globalization gave billions the economic and social power that serves as the basis for all other freedoms. Western civilization is, at heart, defined by a willingness to ask questions and enhance individual liberty. There are no better values to instill in Stanford graduates.

Even if you are unsure whether to support the requirement, we urge you to sign. A signature does not guarantee implementation of the initiative; it merely ensures a vigorous debate on our education, after which people vote on the ballot measure. Our future rests on graduates being more than just specialists in one discipline. Students must understand the implications of their innovations to thrive in the digital era and lead lives of “direct usefulness”, as Stanford’s founding grant demands. Western Civilization does that where THINK cannot.

Stanford’s future depends on getting this conversation right. Thank you in advance for your sincere consideration of this important matter.


The petition text

In accordance with Stanford’s commitment to educating its students, and in recognition of the unique role Western culture has had in shaping our political, economic, and social institutions, Stanford University should mandate that freshmen complete a two-quarter Western Civilization requirement covering the politics, history, philosophy, and culture of the Western world.


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