The Single Tradition: A Multicultural Argument for Western Civilization

The Western tradition is no better than any other, but it serves as a starting point. Stanford students should sign the Western Civilization petition to broaden discussion on the humanities.

The question, “Should we teach the Western tradition?” implies another less discussed issue: should we teach one intellectual tradition? A tradition, in this sense, would mean something like a family of thinkers, who share some cultural lineage and who, more importantly, read each other and engage in conversation with each other. This could be anything from the big umbrella that is the Western canon we’ve been talking so much about lately, to the cadre of thinkers imagining a postcolonial India, to any of the various schools of Islamic theology.

We’re certainly not teaching a tradition right now. The PWR curriculum is devoid of the work of thinkers of any tradition. While some THINK professors try to offer their students a grounding in a tradition – such as how Professor Josiah Ober’s class “Inventing Government” tries to immerse its students in the continuing discussion between Western thinkers about what government should look like – many more of them do not. For example, the class “World of Words” may provide insight into the field of linguistics, but does not acquaint students with a family of thinkers. This isn’t surprising. THINK’s avowed aim is to push students to “explore fully their potential academic interests,” not to consider an intellectual tradition.

Most of the benefits of studying a tradition stem from the fact that thinkers in operating within one tend to come up with very different answers to a common question. The process of analyzing and interrogating these different answers, and carefully considering the repercussions of different perspectives, has much to do with that oft-thrown-around term “critical thinking.” More concretely, this is the process which most reliably leads to good decisions in nearly any situation. Successful policy-making in business or in government is in many regards the same activity: mapping out what the potential answers to a question are, and trying to guess their likely repercussions.

All the critical-thinking benefits that come from studying a tradition come from studying a single tradition, one conversation at a time. Thinkers that do not converse with one another cannot directly criticize or agree with each other, and if you don’t immerse yourself in watching thinkers clash on the same topic, you won’t learn how to analyze the opinions of others in a substantive way.

Voices on campus have expressed concern that studying a single tradition can force opinions and values on the student. This isn’t true. Because the study of a tradition means grappling with every possible answer to a set of questions, the study of any tradition is not inherently marginalizing, at least not in the sense that tradition restricts the range of acceptable opinion. Since traditions have inherent disagreements, reading Locke does not mean we have to agree with him (as has been said elsewhere). In fact, predictably, we get better at disagreeing with thinkers the more familiar we are with the conversation. No one from outside the Western sphere of influence could have leveled a harsher and more substantive criticism of Plato than Aristotle.

But this gets at the true limiting factor in a single tradition: the questions asked. What is restrictive about studying a single tradition is that within the confines of that tradition, a few questions become oft-discussed while the vast majority are not. Ancient Greeks do not ask themselves what the sound of one hand clapping is, any more than Zen Buddhist thinkers ask what role justice should play in the administration of an empire.

What should be done to address this narrowing of scope that the study of a single tradition connotes? And what should an undergraduate humanities requirement look like? It is this writer’s opinion that the ideal undergraduate humanities requirement would consist of a choice of traditions. The classic “Western canon” would be placed alongside courses on the classics of China, Japan, the Arabic world, and India, perhaps among others, and undergraduates would choose a two-quarter sequence in any of these. The reason for this is that the main advantage of studying the classics comes from the act of studying a community. This is something that can be done with any intellectual tradition; nothing inherent in the Western tradition makes the act of studying it more useful to training one’s mind than another.

The argument has been made in the original Reviewmanifesto that the Western tradition should be studied before others because it has the greatest influence in society. We can understand the world, the argument goes, if we understand Western tradition.

It is true that Western tradition dominates in Western spheres of influence, which currently do cover broad swaths of the globe. But it is clearly false to assert that to understand China, we should study the Western tradition. Obviously, we would do better to study the Chinese intellectual tradition. To understand the Arabic world, we should study the Arabic intellectual tradition, and so on. And we should give undergraduates who would like to better understand such areas of the world the chance to do so, as they take advantage of the benefits that come with learning an intellectual tradition.

What I have suggested thus far is, for the most part, unlike the earlier proposal from this magazine which sparked a furore of debate on campus, in that I expect it to be widely uncontroversial. Those opposed made clear that their opposition came not from the idea of teaching tradition, but of teaching the Western tradition: either because they thought it exclusive of other traditions, or because they believed that teaching the West would perpetuate marginalization of thinkers with diverse bodies. Offering a choice would, I believe, mollify both these worries.

Yet I support the Review petition as it stands, and my reason for doing so is straightforward: I believe in the equality of traditions. The Western tradition is not inherently better than any other, which is why I’ve suggested that an ideal humanities requirement would let students choose which tradition to study. But by the same token, I also believe that teaching any tradition is better than teaching none. If the Western tradition is no better than any other, it is also no worse.

If we want to give Stanford students – who will soon be forging the future of technology, policy, and thought – the benefits of good decision-making skill, critical thinking, and historical awareness, then we should act fast to restore the teaching of tradition to undergraduate teaching at Stanford. The Review petition offers the best chance in years to achieve that. We can talk about the choice of a tradition later. What is important now is action.

Subscribe to the Stanford Review