U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Stanford Debates And The Culture Wars

One week from tomorrow I’ll be presenting a paper titled “The Rhetoric of Reactionaries: The Stanford Debates, the Great Books Idea, and the Culture Wars.” This presentation will take place at the 51st annual meeting of the History of Education Society in Chicago. I’ll be on a panel with Andrew Hartman and Christopher Hickman, chaired by Martha Biondi, titled “RETHINKING LEFT AND RIGHT IN THE EDUCATIONAL CULTURE WARS.”

I’ve written the paper. Hopefully it’ll go over well. I’m drawing your attention to it today because there two issues that came up in writing on which I’d like some feedback:

(1) Thanks to Andrew, we’ve discussed a definition of the “Culture Wars” here before (yes, I elect to capitalize the phrase). And there was at least one follow-up post. But, in the interest of being an independent thinker, I’ve decided to use a new one for my paper. Mine was inspired by a recent reading of Daniel Bell’s 1992 Wilson Quarterly essay titled “The Cultural Wars: American Intellectual Life, 1965-1992.” Here’s my definition:

Beginning in the 1960s and continuing until the present, the Culture Wars are the sometimes public fights over the symbolism and meanings attached to cultural, social, political, and economic events by varieties of ‘institutional’ intellectuals—purposely and accidentally separated from each other—and non-intellectuals—the latter often using religion as their bridge back into cultural, social, political, philosophical, and economic terrain.

Thoughts? What have I left out? What’s missing?

(2) In the course of reviewing the literature on the Stanford Debates I learned that there was neither a normalized term for the event—or series of events—nor a short-hand definition of those debates. So here’s what I wrote on both topics:

What were the “Stanford Debates”? The phrase is short-hand for a series of discussions, both at Stanford University and beyond, about the nature, necessity, and required readings of a standardized, first-year course sequence called “Western Culture.” These discussions began in 1986 and culminated in a spring 1988 decision to replace “Western Culture” with something called “Culture, Institutions, and Values,” or CIV, in the fall of 1989. During the spring of 1988 those discussions reached a fever pitch. Secretary of Education William Bennett came to Stanford to debate the changes with President Donald Kennedy. There is no agreed upon name for this series of historical events; I have seen them called the “Stanford Debate” (singular), “Stanford Affair,” and “Stanford Canon Debate.” As I see it, however, those debates were about three things: (1) multiculturalism in education (diversity and/or rigor, or excellence); (2) the failings of curricula anchored in Western civilization or culture; and (3) the types of books used in those curricula (i.e. great, good, representative, etc.).

What do you think? What have I missed or neglected? – TL

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Tim,
    I’m sorry I won’t be able to attend the HES panel. It sounds very interesting.
    I’d like to comment on the periodization of your definition of Culture War. In my opinion, we can only understand the later-century Culture Wars if we extend the period back to its start in the 1920s. It was in the 1920s that the continuing contours of battle over the nature of the American public square took their durable shape. To me, it is not as important when Moynihan started using terms such as “Kulturkampf,” or when Buchanan announced the existence of a culture war as when the positions of the two sides emerged.
    To take one example, the cultural identity of fundamentalism emerged in the 1920s. To paraphrase George Marsden, that identity stretched beyond conservative theology to a cultural attitude of belligerence. The roots of culture-war institutions such as the Institute for Creation Research (through the Deluge Geology Society) and Bob Jones University lay squarely in the 1920s.
    Perhaps this is similar to understanding the world wars. Some might say with justification that World War II began in 1937 in Asia or 1939 in Europe. In my opinion, we only understand World War II if we examine the beginning of conflict in 1914. I’m aware this argument can be stretched into absurdity. For instance, by this logic we can only understand World War II if we take into account the birth of the nation-state, the unification of Germany, etc. etc.
    But this is a different and more specific objection. I think the trenches of the 20th-century culture wars were dug in the 1920s. It was during that decade that the issues about America’s public culture emerged in the form that they were debated up through and including the 1990s and beyond.

  2. Dear Adam,

    Thanks for the comment. I have argued elsewhere (#2 of my comment) with my USIH colleagues that the deepest roots of the Culture Wars most certainly lie in the 1890-1920 period. However, I have strong sympathies with those who argue that the term (whether kulturekampfe or Culture Wars) does have more significance in the period in which it was used. The language of the 1990s speaks directly to the term “Culture Wars.” And this happens to be very near the periodization of my HES paper.

    So, Adam, we’re not that far apart. And I like your World War analogy. You do, however, understand the economies involved in conference papers, as well as in publishing in general. So it’s certainly a somewhat arbitrary matter of convention.

    – TL

  3. Tim,
    I hear you, and I agree we’re not very far apart. And I certainly don’t mean to quibble with your focus on a certain period in your HES paper.
    But I think the terms here make more than a quibble’s worth of difference. If we talk about 1964-today as the period of the Culture Wars, that means something significantly different than if we talk about 1964-today as the latest segment of the culture wars.
    Perhaps my perspective is skewed because of all the time I spend studying conservative Protestants, but it seems to me the long picture (1920-present) gives a much richer and more accurate picture of culture-war issues.
    On another note, do you have any publication plans for this HES paper? Is there anywhere I could read it in its entirety?

  4. Adam,

    Here’s the link that was somehow missing from the “elsewhere” in the second sentence of my comment above (pointing you to #2).

    But, onto your comment this morning, should we call the 1968-present period “Culture Wars #2”?

    I can send you my HES paper if you give me your e-mail address.

    – TL

  5. Tim,
    Thanks for the paper and the link to the earlier discussion of Andrew Hartman’s post. Now I’ve caught up a little bit on that previous discussion. I wish I had a snappy name to describe the longer conflict that you and Daniel Rodgers both point out. It seems to me the real issue is the struggle to define America’s public square. What will count as art? What will kids learn in schools? Is America a “Christian Nation?” Etc.
    At the risk of repeating myself, I still believe these long-term struggles ought to have first claim to the label ‘culture wars.’ They took shape in the 1920s and continued throughout the century. I think this distinction matters in framing and shaping the way we interpret those battles over the nature of American culture.
    The iterations of these fights that became called the Culture Wars in the 1980s and 1990s only seem like yet another flowering of this twentieth-century theme. To call them THE Culture Wars still seems dangerously misleading to me.
    But I don’t have a good name to suggest. “Culture Wars II” has a good Sylvester Stallone-like quality, but it leads us to impose too-rigid boundaries on earlier fights. “The Continuing Struggle to Define the Nature of America’s Public Square” is not going to fit in any headlines, nor sell any books. How do other fields break up their long stories? How do historians of the Cold War separate out the many different periods and conflicts of that long-running struggle? Maybe the long conflict could be called the culture war, and each episode could get a specific name (?)

  6. Dear Adam,

    My apologies for this slow reply. Of course I was out last week traveling to the very HES conference in question. The paper seemed to get a positive reception, but most of the questions on our panel had to do with legal questions about religion—a focus in both Hickman’s and Hartman’s papers.

    The longer struggle with which we are, well, struggling with is modernity. It’s no coincidence that many episodes of the Culture Wars, post-1968, are to do with religion in the public square, art, economics, media (conflict over film, bias, etc.), and the parallel Democrat-Republican = liberal-conservative divide in American politics. I admit that this last is the most complicated, or least continuous, due to the Dixie-crats.

    In sum, I’m with you. So, returning to what to call the “Long Culture Wars”—touche, perhaps that’s the pithy title we’re seeking. This allows us to stay with a burgeoning consensus about what to call the post-1968 events, but also allows for the longer-term, episodic periodization you seek?

    On your “long Cold War” analogy, I pointed that out with Andrew Hartman when I reviewed his first book, *Education and the Cold War*—which really stopped at 1960.

    – TL

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