U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Wild, Wild West

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.stanford1

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.

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Very interesting article in numbers ways. I know I will be somewhat rightly accused of cherry-picking the odd item here, but I did notice that one of the choices in a subsection of the ThinkingMatters matters was “The Science of ‘Mythbusters'” (the TV show of goofy guys in a junky garage more or less testing true basic principles of science.)

    More seriously, the Stanford program seems to represent a prodigiously serious effort, of mixed results, to frame an innovative, “relevant” set of basic course requirements, even if one has to wade through a massive protocol to “get it.” I know the Stanford freshman is going to be exceptionally bright, but I wonder if—off-campus—prior to arrival, a new freshman could adequately make the right decisions, but perhaps failing to choose wisely is a sort of unwritten lesson that is also part of higher education, but a terribly rueful one.

  2. errata: “article in a number of ways”
    “one of the ThinkingMatters course”

  3. Thomas, thanks for the comment. You write, “I wonder if—off-campus—prior to arrival, a new freshman could adequately make the right decisions…”

    It may not surprise you to know that this question has been at the forefront of discussions about curricular change at Stanford and elsewhere since the emergence of the elective system in American universities (thanks CWE!). It was a particularly salient concern at Stanford in the 1970s, when faculty were arguing for a return to something like a general ed program, and in the 1980s, when some of the same faculty were trying to preserve the Western Culture curriculum. The question points to the persistent sense that part of the mission of a university education should be the formation of students’ (moral) character — in this case, a university should help students become more wise. It can do this either by guiding their choices, or by providing a framework for them to exercise their choices, or some combination of both.

    Though the sticker price of Stanford is pretty damn high, the price of making an “unwise” choice at Stanford in terms of undergraduate major or course of study is probably quite low. What are the costs or risks of picking one Thinking Matters course over another, when the transcript/diploma says Stanford University? In terms of future employability, I’d guess the consequences of the choice are negligible. In terms of expanded intellectual/moral horizons — who knows?

    One important thing to keep in mind — one thing I’m emphasizing in this chapter — is that distribution requirements also distribute a sizable chunk of instructional hours to the various departments/schools in the university. A major consequence of going from a 3-course sequence of classes taught by various departments in the humanities, to a 1-course requirement that might be taught by any of the schools is to reduce (if not eliminate) the total number of instructional hours funneled toward the humanities departments. The slice of distributional pie the humanities have claimed at Stanford (and elsewhere) has varied over the decades — indeed, if my math is correct in this chapter,* it was at its highest from 1980 to at least 1994 (due to other distribution requirements besides freshman english and Western Culture reqs). I don’t know if the humanities disciplines got to “keep” the hours of the curriculum represented by IHUM — I haven’t looked closely at Stanford’s current requirements. But my guess is that 2/3 of those hours went to electives (or something), and it’s a mad scramble by all the departments to entice students to take that one remaining required course left over from the original 3.

    *I do not like math, and math doesn’t like me. As an undergrad at Stanford, I took “Intro to Logic” to fulfill the math requirement. I assure you that this was a wise decision on my part, for many reasons. And I’m quite confident that struggling through pre-calculus and/or calculus would NOT have made me a better person.

  4. This is really interesting stuff, LD! I’m just curious: do you have anything on the development of curricula elsewhere, say in the American South? After reading this I’m thinking about my own educational experience in the mid-2000s. I could have taken calculus, for instance, but opted for college algebra because, as a student in the humanities, I was told calculus just wasn’t worth the risk.

    Perhaps I shouldn’t be thinking in terms of region, but reading what you’ve posted so far about your dissertation research, I’m considering how changes in curricula in the 1980s and 1990s (and before, of course) varied by region and state. The battles over Black Studies and Southern Studies, for instance, in schools across the country (and with Southern Studies, more so in the Deep South) come to mind, although that’s a bit different from changes to the entire curriculum!

  5. Robert, I’m pretty tightly focused on Stanford’s 80s kerfuffle and the hay made out of it for the next decade or so in public discourse. So I have been digging deep into primary sources for curricular history at Stanford, and reading broadly for the rest — Veysey, Reuben, Cremin, Thelin, Rudolph, Jewett, etc. (Reuben is also good for Stanford-specific history, of course, as is the Lowen book I blogged about recently.)

    In fact, I guess I should start one of my crowdsourced bibliography posts — I know a lot of our readers are working on different aspects related to the history of higher ed, and a USIH-inflected higher ed bibliography would be good. If time lasts and I don’t die, as my granddad would say, I’ll maybe post that on Saturday.

    One system I know I’ll be looking at in more detail (especially for a later chapter) is California’s public higher education system. I might need to write a paragraph or two about Cal, I suppose, where there were some analogous debates happening at the same time as the far more widely reported Stanford debate. But I’m really interested in what was going on at some of the Cal State campuses.

    Anyway — no, I didn’t mean to be writing a regionally-inflected history of higher education, but I suppose if I’m going to end up doing so anyhow by accident I should maybe see what would happen if I tried to do it on purpose.

    But I’m not sure how many plates I can spin in this project, so I may just have to write a footnote about roads not taken and save it for later.

    • Oh definitely, something like this is well outside the scope of what you’re trying to do. As it should, because the questions about the curriculum at Stanford are big enough and important enough on their own!

  6. Well one aspect you mentioned that I definitely am looking at is Black Studies / African-American studies — ideas/debates in/surrounding that field informed the positions of many of the participants in the campus debate at Stanford. Martha Biondi’s Revolution on Campus is helpful here for the history of the program at Stanford.

  7. Well, Robert, you are getting a footnote in this dissertation chapter. Thanks for asking about regionalism and regional differences — you brought to the foreground something that I might have missed in the background. But it’s there, again and again, through many of my primary and secondary sources — Stanford’s ambition to become and remain a university of national reputation. And the transcendence of the local/parochial/particular is also, not surprisingly, an important idea in (some) arguments for Western Civ classes.

    I don’t usually tip my hand on the arguments I’m making elsewhere, but this one is just sitting right here up for grabs. So thanks!

    • Heh not a problem! Glad I could help in some way. Like I’ve said before I’m really intrigued to see where you go next with this research.

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