The Western Civilization Witch-Hunt

Editor’s Note, Winter 2016

Stanford deserves a real debate on its humanities core, not a climate of silencing and voter intimidation.

Two weeks after the Stanford Review launched a petition to bring back Western Civilization requirements, campus has never been more alive with discussion. Some students wrote in support of the humanities, common requirements, and a Western focus; others opposed specific elements of our proposal. That said, few rejected the call for more humanities requirements outright – a huge step forward for Stanford. The proposal struck such a chord that it even garnered national media attention.

Unfortunately, while some commentary on both sides of the Western Civilization debate has been civil and productive, much of it has been crass, inflammatory, and straight-up intimidating to student voters. The Review’s staff have been called everything from “dusty” to “racist” to “b**ch” to “pendejos” to “disgusting” – hardly a neutral environment in which to express an opinion if you are voting on the proposal. People have a right to say as they please, of course, but this commentary is unlikely to lead to fruitful conclusions. In response, we have been repeatedly ‘invited’ to “wonderful events” with “constructive dialogue”. Unfortunately, Review members who have tried to attend such events have been refused entry at the door.

When my volume began, I commended Stanford on its new-found ability to discuss morally charged but important issues. Disappointingly, the ground has shifted beneath our feet. People writing articles in defense of the Western canon have been marginalized and silenced within groups whose policy priorities have nothing to do with curricular requirements. Signers of the petition have reported being personally called out in dining halls and student group meetings, and have been systematically contacted to justify their signatures. They have also been publicly branded as supporters of “racism”, “elitism”, “classism” and “hatred”. Finally, two members of the Stanford activist community have publicly announced that they have downloaded the list of signatories, and intend to use it against voters in case they “want to run for office”.

Obviously, people have a right to present different perspectives so that voters can make up their own minds. But there is a clear line between news and opinion pieces that focus on the merits of the proposal, and a systematic silencing campaign. Commenters on Facebook have used the most vulgar language known to English and Spanish on our page, have asked if we will “be reading Mein Kampf”, have decried Western Civ as “bully[ing] and attack[ing]”, and have said they are “disappointed” by people voting just to discuss a policy. This is not a marketplace of ideas. It is an internecine warzone of rhetorical suicide-bombers who hold campus hostage with threats of vengeance and ostracisation should students take the bold step of calling for more debate on what our requirements should be.

Clearly, this discussion deserves Stanford’s time and attention. No issue is more central to students at a university than the classes they take. And no component of Stanford’s curriculum is more contested than its humanities requirements, which have regressed to become more lax than even those of MIT and Caltech.

Moreover, this ballot initiative is anything from final. It is a vote on whether to debate the topic itself. Only after the initiative has 350 signatures does campus gain a month to hold townhalls, discuss improvements to the curricular requirements, and vote in ASSU elections. Even if students were then to give it the thumbs-up, the initiative would only go to the Faculty Senate for consideration in liaison with students and professors.

In this climate, Stanford students cannot freely decide on the most important issue that will be debated this year in student politics. But it is more important than ever that they try. A townhall with other campus communities is being held on our initiative on Thursday night, a day after the signature deadline. If the small minority who refuse even to let people talk about Western Civ win, it will be for no purpose. Don’t let them silence Stanford.

If you would like to sign our Western Civilization petition, you can do so here.

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