Publication Date

November 1, 1992

Perspectives Section

Letters to the Editor

I respond reluctantly to Henry Clark's recent criticism of Stanford's CIV program (Perspectives, May/June 1992) because it makes patently false statements about the history course that I teach and about the other tracks that fulfill the CIV requirement.

Prof. Clark asserts that the CIV courses which replaced the older Western civilization requirement "pay no more than lip service to periods before 1400." I can assure him that this is not true of History 1 or of other courses evolved from those in which he once taught and whose passing he laments. As before, we devote the entire fall term to the period before ca. 1530. Most of the other tracks spend even more time on the ancient and medieval worlds and get to the Renaissance in the middle of the winter term. Together these courses teach about 90 percent of all entering freshmen. The rest are enrolled in several small experimental tracks that use a thematic rather than a chronological approach, but a look at their reading lists reveals to any observer that they spend very substantial amounts of time throughout the year dealing with the premodern world.

As for whether CIV is less "comprehensive" than it once was, let me use my course as an example. The 345 students enrolled in History 1 attend three lectures and one two-hour discussion section per week. They are required to read substantial segments of Aristotle's Politics, portions of the Old and New Testaments, the Aeneid, parts of Josephus’s History of the Jewish Wars as well as of Augustine’s Confessions and City of God; parts of the Koran, the Hadith, and Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, as well as Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed and al-Ghazali’s Deliverance from Error; they read most of Dante’s Inferno and large segments of the Lais of Marie de France, Boccaccio’s Decameron, and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales; they also read much of Christine de Pizan’s City of Ladies, Castiglione’s The Courtier, Bernal Diaz’s Account of the Conquest of Mexico, and Aztec accounts of the same event; Machiavelli’s Prince and More’s Utopia are read in their entirety. Like most introductory history courses, we also use a textbook, Kagan, Ozment, and Turner’s The Western Heritage. This covers most, but not all, of our reading for the fall term. The students then go on to equally demanding readings in History 2 and 3, which are part of the freshman requirement and which cover the Reformation to the present.

I don't know what Prof. Clark means by "comprehensive." Every teacher will naturally make a somewhat different judgment what course materials best suit his or her needs, but I would doubt that anyone looking at the above titles would conclude that they are narrow or not worthy of serious reading. History 1, by the way, is not exceptional at Stanford. The other tracks that fulfill the CIV requirement may have some different readings, but they are equally substantial, both in content and in length.

Let me add that although I was among the vigorous supporters of the change from Western civilization to CIV, I share with my predecessors and with my current colleagues a "sympathetic understanding" of the above books and their authors. No one in the CIV program uses the program, as Prof. Clark suggests, "to denigrate those authors, reducing them to caricatured representatives of the sex, race, or ethnicity."

The article by Daniel Gordon, which Prof. Clark was addressing, suggested that the debate about Western civilization was marred by the views of too many on either side of the issue with little experience with the type of course in question. Prof. Clark's letter illustrates the point. While engaging in historical interpretation, it is still important to do some things the old-fashioned way—first, get the facts straight.

, Professor
Stanford University

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