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The fight for standards at Stanford

If asked to explain this weird election cycle, I’d have to say America has stopped thinking. And one major cause of that would have to be American universities and the standards they’ve set for thinking.

Stanford University has been a major trendsetter when it comes to curriculum requirements. The campus upheavals of the 1960s destroyed Stanford’s traditional core curriculum, but failure to come up with a suitable replacement led to a brief revival in 1980, when two semesters of “Western culture” attempted to drill some basic knowledge into freshman heads. Less than 10 years later, Jesse Jackson was leading students in the memorable chant, “Hey-hey! Ho-ho! Western culture’s got to go!” Faculty met with student advisers to craft a “culture, ideas, and values” course that would include non-Western cultures and “works by women and minorities”—and a few dead white guys, too.

Over time, this approach morphed into the “Ways” system: “Ways of Thinking/Ways of Doing,” where first- and second-year students choose 11 courses under eight general headings (such as “Creative Expressions” and “Social Inquiry”). The slate of courses to choose from is so long, a dozen sophomores in the same dormitory pod could satisfy all their general education requirements without taking a single class together.

“Ways” works so well that graduate law students have never heard of Blackstone and engineers are unfamiliar with the history of scientific thought—in other words, not well at all. A week ago, the editors of the rightward-leaning Stanford Review posted a manifesto: “The Case for a Western Civilization Requirement at Stanford.” A ballot initiative accompanied the manifesto, asking for 350 signatures by March 1 in order to qualify for a student vote. The reaction was by-the-multicultural-book (scroll down to the comments, if you dare), labeling the manifesto as “racist” and “oppressive,” foisted upon the student body by “rich white kids” who only want to be validated in their false sense of superiority. It went beyond name-calling to ostracizing and intimidating those students who signed the initiative, some of whom then asked for their names to be removed.

But the Stanford Review editors are fighting back. Last week they collated the five most common arguments against “Western civ” in a handy chart, with two or three responses for each. Here’s just one, replying to the complaint that other cultures have as much wisdom to impart as the West: “When other cultures make contributions to the Western canon, they become part of the melting-pot. This is why [W.E.B.] DuBois and [Simone] de Beauvoir are taught in the Western canon today. …”

It’s also why, when women and minorities have something to say, they are far more likely to be heard in the West than anywhere else. For many reasons, Augustine (an African, by the way), Martin Luther, John Locke, et al. helped pave the platform that the noisy student demonstrators and epithet-hurlers are standing on right now. Requiring that their works be read shouldn’t be controversial, but that’s just another sign—one of the first signs—of the upside-down world we’re living in now.

Janie B. Cheaney Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD's annual Children's Book of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.


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