In 1956, Stanford University revised its undergraduate curriculum and implemented a general education program with specific distribution requirements drawn from various disciplines. Students had to take a year of freshman writing, a year of Western Civ, a math class, two humanities classes, two social sciences classes, a year-long sequence of courses in one of the natural sciences, and two senior colloquia (upper-division seminars within a student’s major). Students also had to demonstrate competency in a foreign language.
In 1957, Stanford published The Undergraduate in the University: A Report to the Faculty by the Executive Committee of the Stanford Study of Undergraduate Education, 1954-56. The last chapter of this report, “The New Curriculum,” details the deliberations of the subcommittees tasked with developing the new general studies program and discusses the rationale behind the new requirements.
I find the timing and sequence of these events amusing, but not particularly surprising.
As institutions go, Stanford has often moved rather quickly, at least when it comes to curricular revision. The recommendations of the 1954-56 curriculum committee were no sooner made than implemented – the write-up, Stanford’s cardinal-covered contribution to the mid-century what-is-a-university-education-supposed-to-be genre, came after the fact. Compare this to the fate of Harvard’s 1945 report, General Education in a Free Society (known as the “Redbook” for its crimson cover). As Gilbert Allardyce explains, the report was published to great acclaim and its recommendations were “approved in principle” by the Harvard faculty.* However,
The Redbook plan for compulsory courses in the social sciences, humanities, and natural sciences gave way in debate to a ‘temporary’ experiment permitting two to four optional courses in these areas. With time, what was temporary became permanent, and two to four options became more, and more. The elective system, thrown out the door, came back in through the window.
This is an interesting description of the interplay between innovation and tradition. Charles William Eliot’s great innovation — the elective system — had become such an ingrained tradition that this considered attempt to move away from it towards a more prescriptive program of study faltered from the start. The Harvard faculty’s resistance to change on this score was institutionally conservative, but a conservative defense of a certain kind of liberality — professors’ freedom to teach the courses they wanted to teach, and students’ freedom to take the courses they wanted to take. Stanford’s mid-1950s curricular reform, on the other hand, was a fairly comprehensive change in how the institution structured undergraduate education, but it was a turn toward a more uniform curriculum. The difference, of course, is not just a matter of institutional location, but historical situation — the trailing edge of a World War versus the cutting edge of a Cold War.
Nevertheless, if Stanford has at times moved quickly and decisively on curricular reform, it has also moved frequently — so frequently, indeed, that a longer view of the history of the Stanford curriculum could suggest not decisive action but persistent indecision — or at least division — over the nature and aims of undergraduate education.
For instance, the general education program implemented for the fall quarter of 1956 was pretty much scrapped for the fall quarter of 1970 in response to 1960s-era student (and faculty) demands for flexibility and “relevance.” A (two quarter) writing requirement remained. For the rest of the requirements, it was a rule of threes: students could take any three 3-hour courses from three broad areas (humanities/fine arts, social sciences, math/science/technology) – 27 hours of course requirements, with the specific courses left entirely up to the students.
But by the mid-1970s, some faculty members called for a return to a more structured and more uniform curriculum, including a return to a Western Civ-type requirement, to give undergraduate education a modicum of coherence. In the fall of 1980, the university implemented new distribution requirements: a three-course sequence in Western Culture, and one course each from seven other subject areas, including at least one course concentrating on a non-Western culture. In 1986, students and faculty called for an end to the Western Culture program, and in 1988 Stanford voted to change the requirement – superficially or substantially, depending on who is telling the story – from a course in Western culture to a comparative survey of “Cultures, Ideas, and Values,” which became a university-wide requirement in the fall of 1989. The CIV course sequence had a short run, replaced by a year-long “Introduction to the Humanities” (IHUM) in 1997. IHUM lasted 15 years, replaced by the requirement that students take a single course from the “Thinking Matters” program.* You can find a description of this program and a course catalog here:
“The Thinking Matters program builds on a nearly 90-year tradition of undergraduate liberal education at Stanford, which began in 1919 with the pioneering ‘Problems of Citizenship’ course.”
This appeal to tradition is interesting. It’s an appeal to a “pioneering” tradition, finding continuity in an institutional history of openness (or proneness) to change, rooted in the university’s “origin story” as an institution born in the last days of the Turnerian frontier and the early days of the Pragmatic turn in American cultural sensibilities.
There are certainly other traditions, other continuities, underlying the curricular changes that I have sketched out above, and part of my project (especially in this current chapter) is to trace out these linear and lateral connections with earlier and parallel developments in American higher education and in American culture more generally. But one of those connections has to do with ideas of “the West” not just in a “Western Civ” sense, but in the sense of the American west, the American frontier, at the moment of America’s turn to “multiplicity.” The history of the Stanford curriculum could be framed as the history of the institution’s love-hate relationship with its image as a young, pioneering, Western university filled with brash confidence, crowned with sunny success, given to flexibility and a willingness to change in light of new experience — and yet forever anxious about its prestige, its inescapable and sometimes unseemly newness compared to the hoary old ivies of the East. One solution is for the university to put the prestige of tradition behind the practice of newness, and turn an unbreakable habit into an unshakeable virtue.
That’s not how I plan to frame my project. But as leitmotifs go, that narrative is not without its charms.
*Gilbert Allardyce, “The Rise and Fall of the Western Civilization Course,” The American Historical Review 87, No. 3 (Jun. 1982), 717.
**In my project, I’m not following the history of Stanford’s curriculum past 1989. For more on the demise of CIV, the rise and fall of IHUM, and the emergence of “Thinking Matters” as the latest in a long line of curricular revisions, see this 2012 article from The Stanford Daily.