The Case for a Western Civilization Requirement at Stanford

“To be an American is about something more than what we look like, or what our last names are, or how we worship. What makes us Americans is our shared commitment to an ideal -– that all of us are created equal, and all of us have the chance to make of our lives what we will.”

Excerpt from President Obama’s national announcement of new immigration reforms, **November 20, 2014.


Liberals cheered and conservatives howled when President Obama unveiled his executive order on immigration. But even the President’s most zealous critics cannot contest that the American creed transcends “what we look like, or what our last names are, or how we worship.” Instead, we define ourselves by the ideals we cherish; by the values, such as equal opportunity and individual initiative, that President Obama invoked because he knew they would resonate with millions of diverse Americans.

The fifty-six signatories of the Declaration of Independence did not conjure these values from midair. Centuries of history forged them. A story of Western Civilization is a history of ideals that guide the Western world, and increasingly, the entire globe. The Western narrative, exalted by virtue and shamed by sin, contextualizes our society.

Western education should tell this narrative. Knowledge of Western values, systems, and institutions prepares students to live, work, and study in Western society, and empowers students to change it when necessary. But Stanford University, an institution purportedly at the pinnacle of higher education, fails its students. Stanford does not require a humanities course that contextualizes our society, and the ramifications transcend the Farm. Our alumni innovating in Silicon Valley, making policy in Washington, and investing on Wall Street lack the historical knowledge necessary to grasp their actions’ implications and responsibly shape the future.

National debates erupted over Stanford’s decision to remove Western Culture requirements during the 1980s. We believe the University must reignite a national debate and reinstate a Western Civilization requirement. Therefore, the Stanford Review is petitioning to place an initiative on the undergraduate spring ballot urging the Faculty Senate to instate a two-quarter Western Civilization requirement, replacing Thinking Matters. The initiative text reads:

“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.”

In this manifesto, we will advocate for a requirement focused on only one civilization and explain why this civilization should be Western, answering objections along the way. We thank you for taking the time to reflect on this serious matter, and remind you that a signature on the petition is not necessarily a support of Western Civilization requirements. It is a signature in support of giving yourself and your classmates the opportunity to debate and voice their opinion on an important part of our education.

Defining a Western Civilization requirement

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.

Students would immerse themselves in the writings of Homer, Plato, Locke, Douglass, and de Beauvoir. The scientific revolutions hundreds of Stanford students use would gain historical context. We would lament the horrors of slavery and oppression – and applaud those who fought for freedom.

An education in crisis

We do not wish to ignite unnecessary controversy. But interrelated trends at Stanford, both recent and long-term, compel us to act now to reinstate a Western Civilization requirement.

First, Stanford students lack the historical context necessary to grasp the implications of their technological innovations. During the recent World Economic Forum in Switzerland, business, government, and academic leaders discussed how the fusion of artificial intelligence, 3D printing, biotech, autonomous vehicles, and drones will lead to social, economic, and political transformations. An Oxford University study projects digitization imperils 47% of U.S. jobs. Whether you believe robots will complement or replace human labor, it is impossible to deny these innovations’ colossal impact.

Businesses and governments will have to rethink their foundational paradigms. And Silicon Valley – armed with Stanford graduates – will drive these changes. Some students will design new technologies and launch new businesses; others will craft policy around their use. Some will find themselves at the intersection of these areas, as Apple does today in its opposition to granting the FBI access to a terrorist’s iPhone.

Western civilization, more so than any other, unleashes disruptive technology on the world; and Western history brims with examples of technological revolutions and their effects on warfare, politics, culture, economics, and poverty. Technologists and policymakers working on driverless cars, for example, would surely benefit from knowledge of how transportation innovations impacted urbanization patterns, employment, and culture.

But these future business and government leaders will not have this insight. 59% of Stanford’s Class of 2019 intends to major in engineering. These students will not know the history that society needs them to grasp. Stanford must equip these students with the knowledge necessary to attain “direct usefulness in life”, as our Founding Grant requires.

The problem of engineers uninformed about Western history closely relates to a second, broader problem: the rise of academic populism. Universities empower students to select their own courses of study, and for good reason. People have diverse passions and skills. Yet Stanford’s majors have core classes because they recognize that education requires some paternalism. In many instances, educators must tell students what they need to learn to master a field.

However, academic populism ironically reigns supreme for Stanford’s WAYS (general education) requirements. Tens, even hundreds, of classes satisfy each WAYS specification. Stanford tells students what they need to learn before they can choose upper-level classes within their majors; it should do the same for the rest of its students’ education. Students need help to determine what they should learn for future careers. In an email to the Stanford Review, Stanford Law School Professor and former Tenth Circuit Judge Michael McConnell wrote:

“I have taught law students for more than thirty years. In recent years I have noticed that many students have little or no familiarity with the political, intellectual and cultural history that shaped the American legal tradition. I’ve encountered students who have never heard of Hobbes and Locke, do not know the causes of the American Revolution, are unfamiliar with the Lincoln-Douglas debates, haven’t a clue about Progressivism or the New Deal, don’t know what separates Protestants and Catholics, and have only the vaguest sense what race relations were like before the Civil Rights Act of 1964. One thing a great university provides is education about what educated people should learn.”

Finally, debates on campuses over issues such as sexual assault policies, protest rights, and faculty statements often feature arguments over principles such as free speech. Reasonable people disagree over how this right should be weighed relative to others. But both those who invoke free speech and those who value other concerns more have little historical context for why people care about free speech, and why it is a fiercely debated cornerstone of Western society. Without understanding the moral and logical dimensions of past disputes, students risk trivializing opposition in making sweeping changes to campus policy.

Stanford needs a requirement that focuses on a single civilization

As one of America’s leading universities, Stanford can prompt a national conversation on humanities, and benefit students in the process. Stanford should instate a common civilization requirement, mandatory for every non-SLE student.

Social awareness arises from a common set of values and norms. Societies neither function nor prosper without shared beliefs, values, or customs. Even if one disagrees with these principles and traditions, reform cannot occur without understanding the historical context in which they arose.

Moreover, communities with common experiences and narratives benefit students. The entire residential SLE community reads Dante and Homer just as countless other students constantly discuss CS106A; most of Stanford’s population has told Karel the Robot to move right, and correspondingly people are willing to discuss CS openly. Stanford’s political apathy partially stems from a lack of shared context and community: students are not exposed to the key histories and contexts that surround important institutions and issues.  

This is not to say that every common experience will promote discussion and action; people do not spend much time discussing the common ground they walk on. But a common civilization requirement touches on countless issues that deeply impact students, all but ensuring discussion. A class encompassing the history of multiple fields would promote interdisciplinary dialogue and intellectual exchange. Conversations would flow from lecture hall to the dining hall.

Many students might favor a common civilization or culture requirement if the course covered multiple civilizations. We contend, however, that a World Culture course is reasonable only if it supplements a requirement focusing almost entirely on a single civilization. Broad survey courses that attempt to cover several cultures have serious drawbacks.

First, teaching quality would suffer in a civilization survey course. The tenure system rewards professors who specialize and make incremental improvements in niche fields. Professors have little incentive to master an extraordinarily broad field. A narrower emphasis on a single culture would not entirely fix this problem, but would increase the probability of finding compelling and knowledgeable teachers.

Second, a survey course would trivialize students’ understanding of key material. Superficial knowledge of several cultures would inhibit deep discussion and understanding. Since faculty would face pressure from various campus constituencies to add new culture and content to the curriculum, the course would risk becoming increasingly shallow.

Once Stanford accepts diversity of cultures in a civilization requirement as a worthy goal, what is the limiting principle? This is no slippery slope fallacy. Stanford’s WAYS requirements includes an Engaging Diversity course. Stanford justifies the requirement with the following rationale:

“In a globally interconnected world, it is ethically and practically crucial to develop an awareness and understanding of differences. By gaining knowledge about diversity and public scholarship, your understanding of the social contexts that frame our communication and collaboration with one another will be extended, and your ability to respond to cultural challenges enhanced.”

Currently students can “develop an awareness and understanding of differences” by taking courses ranging from “Translating Japan, Translating the West,” to “Introduction to Comparative Queer Literary Studies,” to “Dance in Prison: The Arts, Juvenile Justice, and Rehabilitation in America.” The diversity requirement deliberately encompasses any and all experiences. It fails to create meaningful common knowledge within the student body. The same would occur in a civilization class with diversity as a main objective.

A common civilization class should instead emphasize the narratives and values that bind us: the polar opposite of “awareness and understanding of differences.” Stanford’s requirements are out of balance, requiring diversity yet neglecting the equally-important goals of societal cohesion.

Stanford should focus on Western Civilization

Western History’s Descriptive Power

Though many cultures influence our lives and our society, none remotely match the Western tradition’s influence. Its values guide our institutions and culture; its sins compel myriads of reform efforts and activist movements to action. Stanford’s common civilization requirement should focus solely on Western tradition.

The values, virtues, and vices that characterize our society today arose over centuries of the Western tradition. Multiple elements of Western history intersect to explain some of the most important issues facing college campuses and the country.

Take, for example, the recent campus protests at Mizzou and Yale that captivated national attention. Major controversy erupted over free speech, but for debates on the issue to be meaningful, students must understand how individual rights to expression transformed over millennia. Just as universities balance student liberties against other needs, the history of free speech comprises shifting balances between often rivalrous considerations.

In 399 BC, Socrates championed his right to “speak [his] mind” during his trial. Galileo Galilei disputed scientific dogma, and paid for its absence with a heresy conviction in 1633. Socrates and Galileo dissented from prevailing sensibilities and advanced humanity in societies in the process. They paid a price. But political events made room for divergent opinions in public discourse.

After the Glorious Revolution of 1688 peacefully removed King James II of England from power, Parliament made Britain’s new ruler agree to a Bill of Rights that afforded Parliament with free speech rights. America enshrined this norm in its Constitution in 1791 via the First Amendment. John Stuart Mill mounted one of its most eloquent defenses in his 1859 essay On Liberty. Free speech has mutated, expanded, and contracted as a concept over time. And during the twentieth century, America expanded its definition of free speech from solely political activity to almost all expression, while also recognizing the need to curb hate speech.

A deeper knowledge of the history of free speech enriches our understanding of current debates. It explains why America continues to cherish the right for people to say things that sometimes cause great hurt: because the dogma of the status quo ought not restrict people’s right to be “provocative”, a right that Erika Christakis exercised and lost her teaching position for defending. It elevates freedom of expression from a mere utilitarian good that students are willing to trade freely for their own comfort, to a norm that forces people to defend and refine orthodoxy on a daily basis.

Speech does not exist in a vacuum; it proliferates and is often shaped by technology. After events at Mizzou, for example, students around America pasted a viral Facebook status to show solidarity with protesters. People take the virality of social media for granted, but western history explains where this virality came from, and the consequences that each different medium of communication has on the message people transmit.

Gutenberg’s printing press, developed around 1440, increased viral potential; messages that could previously be transferred via copious manual writing or word of mouth exploded, and catalyzed the Protestant Reformation as printed copies of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses and other texts flowed across Europe. In 1843, the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions merged insight and practical knowledge to create the steam printing press. Printing costs plunged and volume soared, enticing new publications with their own slants to form and pursue mass distribution. But the flipside of spreading messages across the European continent was that a measure of authenticity was lost. Recipients of knowledge could ignore it or repurpose it for their own ends when the content creator was no longer in the room discussing it with them.

Centuries later, modern computing and the Internet enabled social media platforms, which lowered the costs of content creation and distribution. Thousands of students around America could now follow events at Yale and Mizzou and contribute to discourse. But the same consequences apply: people could form echo chambers and refuse to acknowledge, say, the journalists shut out from their right to cover events; and others were accused of using the #solidarity hashtag for self-promotion rather than out of genuine concern.

Of course, the West’s history of colonization and racial oppression is also essential to understanding why the events at Yale and Mizzou arose in the first place. Taught properly, a Western Civilization course will not gloss over racial oppression and colonization. This information contextualizes protesters’ demands and informs disputes over racial issues.

The sheer number of intersecting forces in the Mizzou and Yale examples reinforce why a common civilization requirement should focus on just one culture; a superficial survey cannot provide information deep enough to promote true understanding. Most students, no matter their opinions on events at Mizzou and Yale, lack this background, trapping their discussions in recycled talking points and platitudes. Imagine a different debate brimming with historical references, discussions of centuries-old trends, and new context. Stanford, and universities around the country, would benefit.

Many Stanford students are not raised in Western societies, and plan to return home after graduation. But Western Civilization and values are still important to understand because of how globalization arose. Students from other civilizations will export scientific advancements and methods that developed in Western culture back to their homes. Capitalism and trade are global phenomena, and every country participates in financial markets.

Furthermore, societies that embrace Western innovations – such as a strong rule of law, reason, political freedoms, and property rights – thrive. It is no coincidence that economic development efforts attempt to export Western principles. After all, they work. Western history provides important context for these values, and explains how they arose.

Western Civilization, Race and Diversity

Some students object that a singular focus on Western Civilization would glorify the blights of Western history like colonization and slavery. These blights are undeniable and cannot be neglected on a syllabus.

But these sins should not rule out a Western Civilization requirement, for two reasons. First, although Western history has stories of repression, so do the histories of every global civilization. And Western values of free speech, rationalism, and individual liberty fueled the intellectual destruction of colonialism in Western and other societies. Du Bois, Douglass, and Beauvoir used logic and free speech to assail society’s racist elements.

Western values unshackled millions in other cultures from oppression. For example, the Qing Imperial Dynasty ruled China and suppressed native Han Chinese for centuries. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Chinese intellectuals educated in the West explicitly referenced Western values of free speech, skepticism of divine rights to rule, and individual liberty, to challenge the Qing Dynasty. China then turned away from these values during the rise of the Communist Party, and only began to prosper again when it embraced Western emphases on markets and individual innovation.

Second, given Western Civilization is so foundational to our society, we need to understand it if we want to address its flaws. Any reform efforts must act within Western institutions, given they use tools of the Western tradition – like free speech via protests on White Plaza – to advance their causes.

Some of the most heated objections focus on the authorship of texts traditionally used in Western Civilization classes. Some students denounce Western Civilization texts because they are primarily written by white, male authors. But these texts so strongly impacted society that we must study them. Locke’s views on representative government and political legitimacy set the standard by which we judge a government’s legitimacy. The Bible guides the dominant religions in the Western world, and formed the intellectual core of most civil rights movements. We should critique historical oppression. But to do so, we must understand the ideas that shaped our society and that very oppression.

Additionally, although the values espoused in these texts have certainly not been equally applied, the values themselves transcend race, gender, nationality, and socioeconomic status. They are universal ideals. And, as we will see in the next section, many of them are good ones.

Western values benefit society – and humanity

Thus far, we have argued for a Western Civilization requirement because of its explanatory power and because of its ability to create a common experience around a collective narrative. But Stanford should also instate a Western Civilization requirement because Western values benefit society.

Despite its pitfalls, Western civilization has advanced humanity than any other culture. Values of rationality and empiricism inspired the Scientific Revolution, which in turn fueled Industrial Revolutions that lifted more people from poverty than ever before. Individual initiative, free markets with powerful central institutions constrained by the rule of law, and scientific advances changed the average human condition from perpetual poverty to economic growth.

And the explosion in global economic growth around the time of the Industrial Revolution can be attributed primarily to Western nations and innovations. In 1900, Western nations drove around 52% of total GDP and an additional 20% came from Asia, a continent awash in Western trade and technology by this time. The Qing Dynasty in China sought to import Western industrial practices and technology beginning in the 1860s; the 1868 Meiji Restoration in Japan ushered in a flood of Western innovations. Therefore, the West either directly or indirectly accounted for around 70% of GDP at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Higher levels of economic growth enable advances in medicine, literature, living standards, and political institutions. For example, technological advances like the laundry machine empowered women with more free time to obtain an education and join the labor force. There is a reason nonprofits and the corporations try to empower third-world nations with values of individual initiative, political liberty, and free enterprise: they fuel economic growth, and economic stability is the precondition for all other rights.

Western values – especially emphasis on the individual and skepticism of political authority – are also essential to maintaining a free society that respects and advances individual dignity, dreams, desires, and differences. Reasonable people may disagree about policy, but on a deeper level, Western societies have the best track record in enhancing individual well-being. Without a deeper appreciation for these values, society will neither be prepared to meet the demands imposed by liberty nor will it be able to sustain economic growth.


In the coming weeks, debate over Western Civilization will consume campus. Emotions will be strong on both sides. And they should be. Because this debate, more than most others on campus, concerns the values we believe a society should hold. Education inevitably champions certain values and ways of viewing the world, and it is time to have a debate worthy of Stanford about our values and history.

We believe a mandatory Western Civilization sequence will provide more context for important discussions and promote values conducive to individual liberty and collective prosperity. But even if you remain unconvinced, this petition still deserves your signature. Signing is not necessarily a signal of support for the requirement; it merely ensures the initiative is placed on the ballot. More important, it ensures Stanford’s student body will have a civil debate this spring about the future of a Stanford education. Stanford has no higher duty than deciding how its education will shape the world.


Appendix: Stanford’s Western Civilization debate roils America

Stanford once required a single, multi-quarter Western Civilization class. But student and faculty protests during the 1960s forced Stanford to axe the Western Civilization requirement in favor of a Western Culture requirement, a series that evolved into the 1980s. Unlike Western Civilization, Western Culture had six tracks such as Comparative Literature that focused on different elements of the Western intellectual tradition. A core list of fifteen books that included titles like Voltaire’s Candide and St Augustine’s Confessions was supposed to maintain a common experience across tracks. But diverse track needs hampered implementation of the entire core list, damaging the common experience.

During the 1980s, students and faculty again protested the civilization curriculum, assailing its Western emphasis and lack of minority-authored texts. Bill King, the President of the Black Student Union during 1986, spoke to the Academic Senate:

“They are crushing the psyche of those others to whom Locke, Hume, and Plato are not speaking, and they are denying the freshmen and women a chance to broaden their perspective to accept both Hume and Imhotep, Machiavelli and Al Malgili, Rousseau and Mary Wollstonecraft. […] The Western culture program as it is presently structured around a core list and an outdated philosophy of the West being Greece, Europe, and Euro-America is wrong, and worse, it hurts people mentally and emotionally in ways that are not even recognized.”

Shortly after Mr King’s remarks, the debate went national and Stanford found itself at the center of a debate over college curricula and culture. Five-hundred Stanford students marched alongside Reverend Jesse Jackson chanting “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Culture’s got to go”. The New York Timesand countless other publications covered the controversy; Newsweek published a widely-read report called “Say Goodnight Socrates”.

Even the White House involved itself. President Reagan’s Secretary of Education William Bennett debated Stanford’s President Donald Kennedy on live television, sharply criticizing efforts to ditch the core list. Nevertheless, the movement proved successful – Stanford abandoned Western Culture.

Stanford manifests a national trend. A study revealed that while forty of fifty elite institutions familiarized students with Western Civilization in 1964, not a single university required a course on Western Civilization in 2010. Today, after several changes, students are relegated to a one-quarter Thinking Matters requirement that includes seminal courses like “Breaking Codes, Finding Patterns” and “Food Talks: The Language of Food.”

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