In 1988, the Rev. Jesse Jackson—then a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination—joined students at Stanford in chanting, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go!”
With that spectacle, the university promptly dropped required courses in Western Civilization. Fifteen texts—a “core list” that included Plato, Voltaire, St. Augustine, and Marx and Engels—were replaced by a more diverse canon.
It was the beginning of a wave of protests against Western culture on college campuses in the 1990s that, today, has seen a resurgence in the form of trigger warnings on syllabi, safe spaces, and policed speech.
At Stanford, a backlash against this censorious student culture is taking shape in the form of a petition to reinstate the university’s Western Civilization curriculum.
In the next two days, students will vote on a referendum proposed by the Stanford Review, an undergraduate political magazine, urging the Stanford’s Faculty Senate to require a two-quarter course for freshman “covering the politics, history, philosophy, and culture of the Western world.”
Harry Elliott, a sophomore and editor in chief of the Stanford Review, said the idea for a petition has been brewing for roughly a year, when they ran a story on Stanford’s humanities’ requirements relative to MIT, CalTech, and other elite schools.
“There’s commercial pressure from Silicon Valley to take more tech courses, and then a race to the bottom among professors to recruit students with easy courses like ‘The Language of Food’ rather than courses that explain the world in which we live today,” Elliott told The Daily Beast.
Under the new curriculum, Stanford students would “immerse themselves in the writings of Homer, Plato, Locke, Douglass, and de Beauvoir,” the petition reads. “The scientific revolutions hundreds of Stanford students use would gain historical context. We would lament the horrors of slavery and oppression—and applaud those who fought for freedom.”
According to Elliott, the idea that Stanford students should study more humanities is gaining traction on campus. The Review’s proposal for a single, Western-centric requirement, however, has provoked considerable controversy.
“There’s a small cabal of people who are unwilling to even engage in that conversation—to hear democratic, reasonable voices educating them about the Western underpinnings of our society,” said Elliott, dismissing criticism that such a course would primarily teach texts by “old white men.”
“People like Simone de Beauvoir took the concepts of freedom and applied them to people who deserve those same freedoms,” he said.
He also stressed that the Review has proposed the curriculum change in the form of a democratic vote, while other groups on campus impose demands on the administration.
Last week, a group called “Who’s Teaching Us” released a list of 25 initiatives and policy changes, including that the next school president “break both the legacy of white leadership and cisgender male leadership.”
Some students who oppose the Review’s referendum are engaging in a refreshing critical debate.
Zach Rosenthal, a junior majoring in biochemical engineering, agreed that the university needs more humanities courses but insists they should not be “solely focused on Western thought.”
“The Review authors are purposely equivocal on this issue. They say you’re still allowed to criticize things from the Enlightenment, but they’re only valuable if they’re grounded in the tradition of Western thinkers. So they would use other Western philosophers to criticize each other rather than introducing non-Western thinkers.”
Erica Lynn, a senior majoring in “Earth Systems,” dismissed the Review’s proposal as “silly.”
“Stanford is already a four-year academic exercise in Western Civilization and an uncritical one at that,” she said, citing a world food economy class in which her professors refer to impoverished African villages without mentioning “the role that colonialism had in shaping poverty across the global south.”
Stanford’s classes are structured on “an assumption that Western Civilization is an immutable construct,” she said. The Review’s proposed curriculum would only make things worse.
If the referendum passes by a majority vote, the school would not be mandated to accept it. But at a time when students at Emory University are decrying the mere presence of pro-Trump chalkings on campus, it would certainly signal a shift toward a more tolerant campus culture.