Last year the Stanford Review published a panegyric to the increasingly unpopular notion of a classical liberal education, accompanied by a petition urging the introduction of a mandatory two-quarter program on Western civilization. The Review did not get its wish; despite making national headlines and attracting considerable support from students, the push ultimately failed. Despite this, however, the Stanford administration listened; by the following academic year, they had launched a new “Humanities Core” program. The program would begin with a three-quarter sequence on the “great books” and “big ideas” of Europe, before following up in the subsequent year with a similar program for the great works of the Asian canon, and finally an African program the following year.
It was with great gusto, then, that a smattering of Review staffers signed up this quarter for “Humcore 11: Great Books, Big Ideas — Europe, the Ancient World,” a class that likely would not have existed save for their publication’s activism. The class is a sweeping look at the great books of the classical Western world, traversing such disciplines as literature, history, and philosophy. The class read healthy portions of these texts under the expert guidance of classics professor Christopher Krebs, whose published books include two examinations of Tacitus’ Germania, one of the works the class studied.
The syllabus featured surprisingly little overlap with the texts studied in Stanford’s other great books program, Structured Liberal Education (SLE); indeed, there were a few diehard canon-fiend freshmen taking both courses simultaneously. Professor Krebs gave lofty, slightly vague justifications for why he had chosen the texts he had: they were, in his judgment, the most “thought-provoking” and “influential” ones of the ancient world. Regardless, in these writers’ opinion, he chose well; the potential omissions (Aristotle and Seneca, to name a couple) were justified in a Q&A in the last sessions of the class wherein Krebs sought students’ feedback.
Where the class really shone, though, was not in its selection of texts but in Krebs’s manner of conducting discussions. He eschewed that unpleasant, all-too-common tendency of humanities professors to treat all ideas and textual interpretations as equal. That isn’t to say that he was dismissive of our ideas, but he didn’t hesitate to ask probing questions about them and left students with little doubt as to where he stood on the issues that we discussed. Too often do professors and section leaders in humanities departments, whether because of inertia or a fear of offending students, lead discussions with a cringe-inducing relativism. Krebs’ rigor was a breath of fresh air. As an exceptionally able classicist, too, Krebs gave the class insight into the Latin and Greek original texts and shed light on the tropes and ideas lost in their English translations. He consistently linked the texts’ ancient ideas to modern phenomena in the realms of art, law, and many others besides. He implored us to not view the texts anachronistically but to understand the contexts within which they were written, and had healthy debates with students who argued that certain texts were “problematic” or outdated in their conceptions of the world.
Though the texts in the syllabus were written centuries ago, they all seek to answer fundamental questions about human nature and the social world that all humans throughout history have asked ourselves at some point — from Lucretius on the fear of death, to Socrates on the nature of love, to Herodotus on the purpose of historical inquiry. As long as human nature remains the same, the broader lessons that these authors communicate about the nature of warfare, religion, and ethics will remain timeless. Perhaps more importantly, these texts have shaped the thought of virtually every leader who has played any role in forming our modern Western societies, as well as ideas about individual rights and governance that we now hold as dogma.
The ideas taught in the class are particularly relevant given that many Stanford students will go on to work for technology companies who seek to reshape the world around a technological vision, or to become political leaders who determine the nation’s policies. It is imperative that we read these texts and understand the foundations of today’s society. In the parable of Chesterton’s fence, two companions come across a fence in the middle of a road. One brashly suggests that they take down the fence, but the more intelligent reformer responds that it is dangerous and unwise to destroy the fence without understanding why it was erected. Similarly, before rushing to dismantle oppression in our society or to redefine ethics in a new technocratic world, we must understand the ideas behind today’s society. As our classmate Alp Akis ‘21 noted, “Understanding the historical context in which ancient texts were written equips the reader with the academic skepticism to question the writers’ motives. In other words, we learn not to take the texts at face value.”
As it stands, only twenty students this quarter enrolled in the three-unit class. The smaller size does allow more flexibility for students who want to immerse themselves in the canon without sacrificing half of their academic lives to SLE, and Professor Krebs did set a fair deal of reading, but with only two writing assignments throughout the quarter, students were largely left to self-motivate to get themselves through the reading.
Stanford ought to make this course more rigorous and position it as a strong substitute for PWR and THINK, if not make the course mandatory for all undergraduates. Rather than simply assigning a midterm paper on one of the eighteen texts along with a final exam, the course ought to require students to write short responses every week to the texts that they read. Writing these responses would force students to complete the readings and engage critically with the texts, and it would likely lead to richer discussions in class.
Some might argue that making this class a mandatory requirement — or even a strong substitute for PWR and THINK — would occupy several units of students’ schedules that could otherwise be spent engaging with texts from other equally valuable cultures. Students who are determined to engage with texts of other cultures would certainly find time to do so regardless; and for those who have no such inclination, taking a required course on Western thought may well provoke a desire to learn about how thinkers of other cultures have approached the same questions. Moreover, the other, Asian-focused Humcore sequence, laudable though it is in principle, falls woefully short of its European counterpart in rigor; classes on Asian food, technology, and media, while interesting, are not comparable to Plato. We hope that the African program offered next year mirrors the European program in its approach to the deep, foundational questions of life.
If Stanford is to educate students to become useful citizens of a world that has been fundamentally shaped by Western thought and civilization, it is simply common sense to provide students with a basic understanding of the Western canon. The new Humanities Core is a promising start.