Several weeks ago, Stanford University’s student government voted down an initiative that would require all Stanford freshmen to complete a two-quarter Western civilization course covering “the politics, history, philosophy, and culture of the Western world.” Voted down is, in reality, an understatement: only 14.65% of voters approved of the measure, with the final tally being 342 votes in favor and 1,992 against.
Stanford’s student government soundly exercised its right to determine its curriculum. Nevertheless, the call to protect Western civilization courses is both needed and worthy.
Western civilization courses flourished on university campuses between WWI and the protests of the 1960s. With much international conflict during this era, these classes sought to explore the similarities between America and her European partners. During this time, these Atlantic allies were believed to have common identities and histories, and many believed that the only way to ensure that their common history continued was through a compulsory education of classical Western literature and philosophy.
This belief went relatively unchallenged until the rise of educational self-expression in the 1960s, which led many schools to drop certain mandatory courses and allow students to exercise more autonomy in choosing their studies. Shortly thereafter, colleges and universities began promoting classes that provided students with non-western, multicultural perspectives with anti-western sentiments.
In the late 1980s, Jesse Jackson led student protests at Stanford under the rallying cry of “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Culture’s got to go.” Seeking to shift schools’ administrations away from traditional Western civilization courses, Jackson and his student supporters sought to demonize Western culture for its historical treatment of minorities and women. Due to this treatment, they believed that Western civilization classes should be terminated from the college curriculum.
Stanford’s rejection of mandatory Western civilization courses for incoming freshman is not a new event, but rather a continuation of beliefs expressed for the past 50 years. Over this time period, Western civilization classes have largely been dropped from collegiate educational programs all over the country.
The initiative to reinstate mandatory courses is much needed for those who still believe in the merits of Western civilization classes.
What exactly are those merits? While all sides of this argument have different views on how the West has lived up to its values of freedom and liberty, nobody should deny importance of the values themselves. These principles did not develop in a vacuum, and mankind has grappled with how to implement these ideals for years. Western culture has undeniably had profound impacts on the application of these values, and studying Western civilization is one of the best ways of understanding their development over time.
Though science, math, and engineering courses may help students learn about professions, culture and civilization courses help remind students of who they are. If we cannot examine the mistakes of the past–or if we refuse to focus solely on mistakes to the exclusion of any successes–we are only condemning ourselves to a future of repeating them.