Publication Date

April 1, 1992

Perspectives Section


AHA Topic

Teaching & Learning, Undergraduate Education

In 1989, Stanford retired its requirement in “Western Culture” and introduced freshmen to a new requirement in “Cultures, Ideas, and Values” (known as CIV). That same year, I arrived at Stanford to be an instructor in the new program. I had received my B.A. from Columbia and was about to receive a Ph.D. in history from the University of Chicago. As a result of my experience at these two institutions, I was (and still am) a strong believer in required courses in Western civilization. My interest in history began in Columbia’s course, “An Introduction to Contemporary Civilization in the West.” Founded in 1919, “Contemporary Civilization” (or CC, as it is called at Columbia) is the oldest required course in Western civilization in America. CC pioneered the Great Books approach to Western civilization and was the model for Stanford’s old “Western Culture” program. But if Columbia has the oldest, Chicago has the most extensive set of undergraduate requirements in Western history and thought. In 1988, when Allan Bloom published The Closing of the American Mindand offered the spirit of Chicago as a solution to the failures of higher education, I was a graduate student teaching the “History of Western Civilization” to Chicago undergraduates.

My move from Chicago to Stanford was accompanied, I admit, with a certain amount of anxiety. I had been immersed in traditions of European thought and emerged as a specialist in Enlightenment philosophy. Would I now be required to teach rap music and Rastafarian poetry? It did not take long to discover that this fear was unfounded. There is no question that the Stanford program is different from the traditional Great Books course. Yet viewed in relation to a number of important criteria, such as the coherence of the course and the range of sophisticated issues to which students are subjected, there is also no question, in my mind, that it compares well with the older model.

The recent controversies over “political correctness” have made it difficult to appreciate the Stanford curriculum. Without denying that the conservative press has effectively raised doubts about the value of affirmative action and speech codes, I would like to suggest that the “pc” debate remains at a very low level when it comes to discussing the value of particular courses of instruction.

Since Edmund Burke, one of the key aspects of conservative philosophy has been the belief that one cannot responsibly criticize an institution unless one participates in it enough to have an intimate sense of how it works. Burke developed this point in response to the Voltairean method of criticism, a method based on the presentation of decontextualized examples of institutional failure. The problem with current debates about the curriculum is that too many of the ardent participants, on both the left and the right, have no concrete experience, either as student or teacher, with the types of courses that are in question; for the fact is, most universities do not have, and never have had, required courses in Western civilization, Great Books, or multicultural studies. Hence, most academics, not to mention most journalists, face a severe difficulty as they try to participate in the debate. The easy way out is to adopt the Voltairean style: to take a position and defend it by means of caricature.

In denouncing Stanford’s CIV program, authors such as Bloom and D’Souza have done little more than publish snippets from atypical reading lists. It is important to have a fuller sense of what students read. It is important, as well, to recognize that CIV is more than a reading list; it is a process, a year-long rite of initiation marking the transition from high school to college. Ideally, an outsider wishing to portray the program to other outsiders would adopt the method of the anthropologist and reside within the CIV tribe for a year. Yet even that would be insufficient. For in the end, we want to know not merely what the Stanford program is like but how it compares to some of the more traditional programs at other universities. Advertisers often show us people comparing the flavor of different drinks; but there is no easy taste-test for university courses. Fortunately, the itinerant lifestyle of young academics can produce people with inside experience of the main competitors—and as such a person, I would like to offer my opinion of CIV.

In the debate over the canon, defenders of traditional courses have taken the offensive by pointing out examples of what appear to be absurd readings on the Stanford syllabus. Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth is a case in point. Born in 1925 in Martinique, Fanon studied medicine in France, specializing in psychiatry. During the French-Algerian war, he was assigned to hospitals in Algeria where he observed Algerian patients who had been tortured by French forces. The Wretched of the Earth, published in 1961, is an impassioned denunciation of European colonialism and a call for violence against Europeans. Fanon’s critique of colonialism has both Marxian and Freudian elements. The condition of being a native, he argues, is not only one of economic exploitation; it is also a “nervous condition” brought about by the imposition of European repression upon the natural urges of the Algerians.

Writing in the The Wall Street Journal, Allan Bloom declared that Fanon is a “demonstrably inferior and derivative thinker to whom no one would pay any attention if he were not the ideologue of currently popular movements, and did not, as a black Algerian, fit Stanford’s job description.” In the fact that Stanford freshmen read this text, Bloom finds “a stunning confirmation of my thesis [about the closing of the American mind].” In the chapter on Stanford in Illiberal Education, Dinesh D’Souza has also pointed to Fanon as an example of Stanford’s “affirmative action in books.”

These critics argue that Fanon is assigned simply because he was black. Having taught this text, I can deny their assertion. There are no rules in the CIV program requiring that the courses (or “tracks,” as they are called) in the program assign minority authors. The only specific rule is that the issue of the treatment of minorities in Western societies be raised at least once per term. In fact, The Wretched of the Earth serves very well as the basis for discussing not only the treatment of minorities but also general philosophical issues. As I prepared to teach this text, I was encouraged by more experienced members of the faculty to organize discussion around a series of questions proceeding from the factual to the moral. “What is colonialism?” “In what ways can one argue that colonialism benefitted the colonies?” “In what ways can one argue that colonialism damaged the colonies?” “If we assume that colonialism was a highly exploitative enterprise, is that enough to justify terrorism on the part of the natives?” “What particular arguments does Fanon make to justify violence?” “What problems are there in his perspective?” In this way, one could raise the classic issue of “might versus right,” but with reference to the specific situation of colonialism.

D’Souza has stated that the inclusion of Fanon on the syllabus reflects “a primitive romanticism of the Third World” among Stanford faculty. But the purpose of teaching Fanon is not to imbue students with the resentments of intellectuals who hate Europe. The main reason Fanon is included is because one of the goals of CIV is to focus on the interaction between Western polities and non-Western ones, and to study the cross-cultural perceptions that have emerged from this interaction. Students learn what Columbus, Cortés, Montaigne, Rousseau, and Marx thought about the relation of Europe to the outside world. Why shouldn’t they critically evaluate what some non-Western “ideologues” have written on the same theme? The fact is, systematic attacks on the West are a part of the world we now inhabit. Students should be aware of the content of these attacks and the historical situations in which they have developed.

I have dwelled on Fanon in order to show how critics of Stanford misrepresent the study of minority issues. But it is also important to demonstrate what place minority issues and writers have in the syllabus as a whole. D’Souza has claimed that the European classics are taboo at Stanford; inIlliberal Education, he presented a short extract from the syllabus for the “Europe and the Americas” track in the CIV program to prove his point. “Europe and the Americas” is an experimental course within CIV that is open to a small number of freshmen per year. Unlike the other tracks, “Europe and the Americas” tries to focus systematically on the contributions of minorities to American civilization. But it also tries to instill appreciation for the European classics. In fact, the course is based on “the juxtaposition of texts,” a method devised by Renato Rosaldo, the Stanford anthropologist who directs the course. According to Rosaldo, something exciting happened when he assigned Augustine’s Confessions along with Old Man Hat, the life history of a Navajo man. “Both texts got better,” Rosaldo says. The course thus pays more attention to genres of writing (e.g., autobiography) than to any linear version of the history of ideas. It does not provide a chronological account of the development of European civilization, but it does try to reveal some of the distinctive features of the European classics by comparing them to non-European works that are similar in form.

But let us put “Europe and the Americas” aside and look at part of a more typical Stanford reading list. What follows is the set of topics and authors assigned for the period between the Protestant Reformation and the French Revolution in the track entitled “Europe from Late Antiquity to the Present.” This is the track in which I taught from 1989 to 1991. The course has about 350 freshmen per year and is not radically different from the other tracks in CIV. For purposes of comparison, I have also reproduced a typical syllabus for the same period as studied in Columbia’s CC course in 1991.

The ReformationThe Reformation
New Worlds and OldThe New Science and the Polity
Documents illustrating debates about the nature of American IndiansHobbes
Documents from witch trialsLocke
Towards Cosmopolis
Documents illustrating Jesuit missions
Absolutism and its Critics
The EnlightenmentThe Enlightenment
The Costs of Civilization
The French and American RevolutionsThe French and American Revolutions
Rousseau (again)Documents from the French Revolution
Documents from the French Revolution


Stanford students take fewer courses per term than Columbia students. Hence they do more reading in their required courses—and so they read more Great Books. At the same time, Stanford has not limited its course by over-investing in the notion of Great Books as Columbia has. At Columbia, greatness is the main standard that candidates for the syllabus must meet in order to be included. As one CC instructor explained to me recently, CC is “much more a Great Books course than a history course. Second-rate texts that might illuminate aspects of a historical epoch are generally not included.” But if the course is not about the historical development of Western civilization, what makes it coherent?

According to Columbia instructors, not historical context but the very greatness of the texts provides the course with thematic continuity. This is an argument I remember very well from my days as a student at Columbia. What makes a “Great Book” great is that it contributes to the ongoing conversation about important questions: What is the method by which we attain knowledge? What is morality? What is political justice? Texts are selected in such a way that students can see the process of argument and counterargument among authors.

My own opinion about the notion of a conversation among great authors is that very high-level and precise exchanges about faith, human nature, politics, and other subjects do indeed take place. But if one wishes to describe Western civilization as an ongoing intellectual conversation, one should at least recognize that part of the conversation is about what the conversation should be about, and who should be allowed to participate in it. (I borrow this formulation from Professor James Sheehan, who made this point in his final lecture to students in “Europe from Late Antiquity.”) The consideration of important questions often breaks up into intellectually and socially differentiated dialogues. There is not one, all-inclusive conversation. The great minds speak to each other selectively, not in one vast salon but often tête-à-tête. As a result, some debates among great minds occur independently of others, and some even evaporate for want of participants.

The fundamental problem with the idea of a Great Books course is that there are too many dialogues and too many great authors to include in one course. Hence some criterion other than that of greatness itself is needed as a principle of selection and organization. The traditional Great Books programs, however, have no tradition of admitting any other criteria. My recollection of taking CC as a student is that the books were fascinating and were sufficient to kindle my desire to learn more; but the course itself did not greatly enhance the experience of reading the texts because it offered neither a profound definition of the essence of Western civilization nor a complex account of the dynamics of change within Western civilization. These shortcomings, I believe, are inherent in a course in which textual greatness, rather than a specific set of thematic concerns, is the main principle for selecting the readings.

At Stanford, the CIV program is not committed to assigning only Great Books to its students, though it does draw on the classics liberally, as the syllabus above suggests. The principle for choosing from the Great Books is determined differently by each of the tracks in the program. “Values, Technology, Science, and Society,” a track that is popular with students in engineering and the hard sciences, places more emphasis than the other tracks on the role of sciences and technology in Western societies. The “Europe from Late Antiquity” track in which I taught places emphasis on the development of democracy and the inescapable dilemmas facing people who are committed to the principles of individualism and equality. In the old “Western Culture” program at Stanford, a single canon existed for all the tracks, just as a single canon still exists for all the sections of CC at Columbia. One of the reasons for abolishing the canon in 1989 was not to do away with Great Books but to allow the tracks to choose more freely so that they could improve the inner coherence of their courses.

Comparison of the two syllabi shows that the Stanford course includes two units that the Columbia course does not: “New Worlds and Old” and “The Costs of Civilization.” Keith Baker, professor of history at Stanford and the author of the syllabus for the early modern period (1500–1800), devised “New Worlds and Old” so that students could see how debates about European claims to cultural supremacy began not in the 1980s or even in the 1960s but in the sixteenth century, in response to problems raised by the Reformation and the discovery of the New World. “The Costs of Civilization” presents a series of arguments within the Enlightenment about the status of women, slaves, and colonial peoples. Baker states that it is important for students to appreciate that the philosophers of the Enlightenment defined the essential categories of modern political culture. In the process of formulating such ideas as “natural rights,” “progress,” and “civilization,” Enlightenment authors were inevitably drawn into discussions about the nature and rights of women, slaves, and colonies. Issues concerning the status of these groups are thus part of our intellectual heritage. “These issues have not been invented by people who hate the Enlightenment and Western civilization; they lie at the very heart of Western political discourse,” Baker says.

Among the books in the two units just discussed, the one that is most foreign to the traditional canon is the autobiography of Olaudah Equiano. Equiano was born in 1745 in what is now eastern Nigeria. He was kidnapped as a boy and forced to work as a slave on British merchant vessels. Eventually, he bought his own freedom, converted to Christianity, and became an adventurer who embarked on two voyages to the Arctic. Equiano was also an abolitionist, and in 1789 he published The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa the African—one of the first books to appear in a European language by an African author. Equiano portrays vividly what it was like to be a slave. He refers not only to acts of brutality he suffered but also to the laws that made these acts possible, such as the 329th Act of the Assembly of Barbados. According to this law, a master who killed his slave was subject to no prosecution if the slave had run away or committed “any other crime or misdemeanour towards his said master.” But if a master killed a slave “out of wantonness, or only bloody-mindedness, or cruel intention,” then the master was liable to be punished—with a fine of fifteen pounds sterling!

Equiano helps students to see that the concept of human rights in the Age of Enlightenment was limited to those who were deemed human—and just who qualified as human was a matter of great debate. Although Equiano reveals the underside of European civilization, the purpose of assigning him is not to generate hostility toward Europe. In fact, Equiano clearly shows that Africans were also practicing slavery as part of their indigenous culture. In his critique of slavery, Equiano is moderate, amiable, and very English. His proposals for reform are much less radical in tone and substance than those demanded by Raynal in his History of the Europeans in the East and West Indies (also on the Stanford reading list—first published in 1770 and the most popular work of the late Enlightenment).

Defenders of the old canon sometimes assume that the addition of minority writers to the syllabus will entail an influx of radical values into the curriculum, as if any argument by a minority writer is ipso facto more radical than any argument by a non-minority writer. Readers of Equiano quickly discover the absurdity of this assumption. Equiano appears on the cover of his book, very dark-skinned and dressed like an English gentleman. Students must deal with the question, “Who is this man who remembers his African tribe with nostalgic tears and who believes that the Indians of North America should be converted to Christianity? Is he an African or a European?” It all depends on how you define “African” and “European,” and, above all, it depends on what you consider to be the essential feature in the identity of humans in general—their color, their place of origin, their religion, their memories, their fears about how others will define them? These are the issues that Stanford students must confront in “Europe from Late Antiquity” and that are often excluded in the traditional curriculum.

The purpose of the course is not to suggest that these issues have easy answers. The purpose, rather, is to get students to appreciate the importance of the questions themselves. As a young instructor in the program, I was encouraged by the architects of the course to make connections between past debates and present situations; but I was not given a political agenda. Although critics have suggested that Stanford professors are brainwashing their students, the students themselves do not feel that they are being pressured to adopt a “correct” ideology. It is only necessary to read the evaluations of students (a neglected source of information in debates about “pc” and required courses) to see that this is the case. “The discussions required a good knowledge of the texts and listening to varying viewpoints was stimulating,” one student wrote. “Homogeneous thought is not what this class is all about. We were expected to challenge ourselves and others.” Another student wrote, “I feel the course made the works very understandable and even the most dry writings enjoyable. The instructor never emphasized, or even made known, his own views and I think that was good. This year I came to determine some of my own values and some of the things that I really believe.”

I could cite many other such comments. But it should be clear by now that the critics of Stanford do not always understand the CIV program. I have compared CIV to CC not in order to devalue the latter but in order to validate the former by showing that it stands up well when compared to a program that is widely respected. We should always bear in mind that most universities do not have required courses in Great Books or Western civilization. Columbia and Stanford share something that is far more important than the differences between their reading lists: a commitment to a highly structured core curriculum that immerses students, for at least a year, in rigorous discussion of some of the most general problems in our culture. I believe that those universities that have abandoned required courses are the ones that most deserve critical scrutiny today. I also believe that those universities are the ones that are experiencing the severest onslaughts against academic freedom.

At Stanford, in class, I often formulated arguments in favor of absolute monarchy, aristocracy, male-dominance, and slavery. I was never harassed by students because students knew that I was doing my job, which was to harass them intellectually. But for most students this Socratic spirit does not come naturally. It can only be fostered in a special type of course—a course that is so philosophical that common sense gets lost, a course that is so panoramic in viewpoint that our deepest values show their historical specificity. Students with no such training who find themselves in specialized history courses may not be able to understand why the instructors adopt a sympathetic attitude (in Herder’s sense of Einfühlung) toward kings, aristocrats, and other creatures who are inherently repulsive to the modern American mind. Students have even been known to launch protests against a professor’s right to discuss the values of these antiquated beings. But students who have been properly introduced to Western civilization will know that inequality has been not only a fact but also a norm throughout most of history. Already accustomed to counterintuitive speculation, these students may even be disappointed if the professor does not make a strong effort to portray the beliefs of people who think differently from themselves.

I am suggesting that a required course in Western civilization is the best, perhaps the only, opportunity for a university to make it clear to all students that part of a professor’s role is to delineate unsavory ideas and that part of a student’s role is to learn about them. I have also tried to suggest that Stanford has done a reasonably good job of creating a distinctive program in which this Socratic enterprise is enhanced by the addition of minority authors to the syllabus. Now that I am no longer at Stanford, I may perhaps be allowed to say that more universities should look to CIV as a model for their own programs.

Daniel Gordon is an assistant professor of history and literature at Harvard University.