U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A Host of Complex Subjects

[Editorial note: this essay is the second of two posts today discussing the recent Stanford forum on intellectual history. You can read the first post here. UPDATE 6/5/16 – 5:00 PM: We have received a third post addressing this topic. You can find that post here.]

A Host of Complex Subjects

by L.D. Burnett

During last week’s Stanford forum on the essence and significance of intellectual history, a student-sponsored colloquium occasioned by and responding to the university’s decision not to grant tenure to associate history professor Aishwary Kumar, fellow panelists Russell Berman and Robert Harrison considered the causes and consequences of a decision the university made almost 30 years ago:  the decision to replace the Western Culture course sequence and its core list of “great works” drawn from a (purportedly) single cultural tradition with a three-quarter course sequence in Cultures, Ideas and Values (CIV).

In the process, both of these professors drew upon arguments and ideas that had swirled about during that 1980s curricular debate about what Stanford students should learn and who should teach them.  And make no mistake: the debate about the form of the curriculum was also (always already?) a debate about the composition of the faculty.

Berman remarked that “the lore about the collapse of Western Culture at Stanford treats that as part of the politicized ideological culture wars of the ‘80s.”  However, he continued, “something else was going on.”  That “something else,” in Berman’s view, was a “shift from a mode of pedagogy that was comfortable telling big stories” to an academic landscape of “hyper-specialization.”

For his part, Harrison suggested that “the great thing about the [Western Culture] core was that every freshman at Stanford was reading the same book in the same week all across the campus.”   That (purportedly) common reading list and schedule guaranteed that “at every dormitory” where freshmen lived and dined, students could discuss the book they had all read in common that week.

This shared reading experience enabled “an exchange of ideas among students” that “got thrown out with the bathwater” when the university shifted from Western Culture to Cultures, Ideas and Values.  “What did not take its place,” Harrison argued, was any sort of “grand narrative.”  What precisely that “grand narrative” should be, Harrison didn’t say.  But he did suggest that someone who considers himself or herself “a humanist…should be able to teach almost anything.” Instead, Harrison said, he sees a fair amount of “resistance to taking the risk of teaching something you don’t have complete mastery over as a professor.”

Harrison might have noticed that same resistance thirty years ago.  But that resistance to teaching outside one’s field of expertise was not coming primarily from “area studies” professors — from gender studies scholars, scholars working in African American history or African diaspora literature, historians of Chicano literature and culture, scholars of Latin American literature and culture, cultural anthropologists.  Certainly, many of those scholars objected to the Western Culture course, but not because it required them to teach material in which they had no expertise; rather, in their view the Western Culture course presumed a “grand narrative” of Western cultural chauvinism that they had no interest in perpetuating.

During the debates of the 1980s, the most vocal champions – or at least representatives — of what Berman termed “hyper-specialization” were, ironically, the staunchest defenders of the Western Culture course.  This group included a fairly sizable contingent of professors from the English department.  These professors’ chief complaint concerned the disciplinary turn of the proposed course (eventually titled “Cultures, Ideas, and Values”) – the turn away from approaching texts as self-contained literary creations toward viewing them as culturally-informed and culturally-embedded historical artifacts.

In the spring of 1987, the chair of Stanford’s English department, Albert Gelpi, wrote a letter to Paul Seaver, chairman of the Western Culture Task Force, calling the committee’s recommendations for the new course “disastrous” because they “change the character of the [Western Culture] course to so-called ‘cultural history.’  I know that I speak for many when I say, flatly and categorically, that I would not teach such a course.  I am not trained as a social scientist, and do not wish to be retrained thus.”[1]

Gelpi was not alone in objecting that the newly proposed course would require him to move beyond both his interests and his expertise.  A few weeks later, a group of nineteen professors, hailing primarily from the English department, wrote to Seaver to express concern about finding enough instructors both qualified and willing to teach the proposed course.  The professors, all past or current instructors in the Western Culture program, said that in their judgment the Task Force’s plan for a redesigned course did not make “either intellectual or curricular sense” and could not “be taught successfully at Stanford.”[2]

While these professors agreed that “there should be a greater representation from women and from ethnic minorities in the concerns of the course,” they warned that “much of the positive influence of the course on Stanford undergraduates will be lost” in the proposed course.  The professors argued that “recruiting a sufficient number of adequately prepared faculty members to teach this new course” would be all but impossible.  Moreover, “mandating a far-ranging coverage of ethnic, geographical, and generic elements would result in the presentation of a host of complex subjects in a strikingly superficial manner.”[3]  In a separate letter, English professor Ronald Rebholz also wrote, “I do not think there are enough teachers in this university who could teach courses satisfying the new requirement.”[4]

This was a peculiar line of argument coming from a group of professors whose defense of the Western Culture program and its core reading list also often advanced the claim that the works on that list were “timeless”, that they had intrinsic value because they could transcend their time and the circumstances of their composition and speak to readers across the ages. (Another line of defense, the rationale mentioned above by Robert Harrison, maintained that what mattered was not so much what texts students read, but that they read them in common.)  Presumably, leading students in the study of such timeless works provided them with a broad humanistic education that would equip them to engage with and relate to a full range of human thought and expression.  How could the professors who sometimes defended the Western Culture course in those terms – as an essential component of a liberal education and a grounding in humanistic inquiry more broadly – at the same insist that they themselves, the resident humanists, had not acquired through their own studies the breadth of understanding that would allow them to teach works from cultures other than the ones they knew best?  (That’s as much an existential question as it is an historical or even a rhetorical one.)

The English professors’ objection to the multicultural, comparative orientation of the proposed CIV course was perhaps more mono-contextualist than anti-contextualist:  they did not want to move beyond the context they knew best.  But there was also clearly an anti-contextualism underlying these professors’ objections to the multicultural turn (viz the disciplinary disdain for “so-called ‘cultural history’!) – and that too is rather striking, especially when viewed through the lens of this recent Stanford forum that seemed to champion, or at least to contend for the value of, a similar approach as a means of “decolonizing” the curriculum.  But perhaps not all anti-contextualist approaches are created equal; one supposes that there must be a world of difference, quite literally, between ideas of “the universal” and “the global.”  Nevertheless, I wonder if the Stanford students who are (rightfully, hearteningly) demanding a deep and thorough liberal education might find unexpected intellectual allies in those earlier defenders of the “Western Culture” course.  To do so, they would probably have to overlook a great deal of the context of those earlier debates.  And, speaking as an intellectual historian – never mind as a historian who is working on recovering and illuminating that context because I think that understanding it might give us some light to see by now — I don’t think that’s a good idea.


[1] Albert Gelpi to Paul Seaver, Apr. 15, 1987, Box 1, Binder 3, Stanford University, Task Force on the Area One Requirement, Western Culture Program Records (SC0396).  Dept. of Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford University Libraries, Stanford, Calif.

[2] John Bender et. al. to Paul Seaver, Apr. 28, 1987, Box 1, Binder 3, Stanford University, Task Force on the Area One Requirement, Western Culture Program Records (SC0396).  Dept. of Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford University Libraries, Stanford, Calif.

[3] Bender et. al. to Paul Seaver, Apr. 28, 1987.

[4] Ronald Rebholz to Paul Seaver, Apr. 20, 1987, Box 1, Binder 3, Stanford University, Task Force on the Area One Requirement, Western Culture Program Records (SC0396).  Dept. of Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford University Libraries, Stanford, Calif.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks for providing this slice, I presume, from your diss/book.

    I too discovered in my work that “context” was a term made problematic (implicitly) by Adler and his opponents, generally historians. They were each debating about different kinds of context, back in the 1940s and 1950s, and after as well. Adler and his New Critic friends at Chicago seemed to promote reading so-called great books in a particular kind of minimalist context (although Adler’s Lovejovian history of ideas context extended further back chronologically than theirs). Hugh Moorhead’s dissertation on the great books movement, which I discuss in my book, relayed that in the 1950s and 1960s the “how much context” question plagued great books reading groups and staff at the Great Books Foundation.

    I realize my comment doesn’t address pluralism and multiculturalism. I simply wanted to affirm that differing definitions of context have plagued debates about teaching and learning great books (or canons) for a long time. – TL

  2. PS: Am I detecting that students in the current debate are now seeing ‘multiculturalism’ as ‘specialization’? If so, that’s also an interesting shift in student demands and rhetoric.

  3. Tim, yes, this is a very small part of my diss — not sure it will make the cut into the book. On the other hand, I wasn’t sure how much of my read on the 80s controversy I wanted to go into here. I will say, briefly, that the Western Culture course was devised in part to counteract “hyper-specialization” and a more general atomization/alienation of the Stanford faculty from one another (dirty laundry, but I have the archival evidence back up the claim), and while “something else was going on” in changing the course besides culture wars politics (though that too was going on), it wasn’t the beginning of hyper-specialization.

    The nostalgic remarks Harrison offered above — all the freshmen were reading the same thing, intellectual communion could happen around the dinner table — really was a main defense of the Western Culture course, especially as articulated by Ron Rebholz. That I look at pretty closely for the (always unexamined) claims it makes about why/how common reading works, but I didn’t want to get into it here — the more important point, I thought, was to correct the idea that the Western Culture program was the bailiwick of the Great Generalists on the faculty, the humanists who were confident to teach anything, and that what has replaced it is a situation where professors will dare less pedagogically. Just the opposite was the case.

    But I do hear parallels, strangely enough, between the aversion to context of those defenders of the Western Culture course — these works are timeless, transcendent, not bound by their circumstances, not limited by the particulars of their authors’ lives, etc, etc — and some of the rhetoric about ideas coming out of the professors on that panel. That’s an interesting convergence.

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