During the few months between accepting an offer of admission to a college or university and actually showing up for freshman orientation, incoming students receive an absolute barrage of information from their school. These days, much of this information – dining plans, housing plans, orientation schedules, immunization requirements, summer reading programs, financial aid offers, tuition payment options – comes via email, with links and online forms and whatnot.
When I was headed off to college, all of these notices came via U.S. Mail. Yes, I am that old.
Long ago, I threw away most of those mailers — this was, of course, before I started grad school and began studying history. I am frustrated that I no longer have some of these ephemera; they would sure come in handy right about now. I was pretty sure that I had saved my initial financial aid offer in some file folder or other, but I can’t for the life of me find it. However, I do recall that the total cost for attending Stanford – tuition, room, board, books, whatever else they put on that triplicate-carbon form I had to sign and return – was a little over $17,000. Yeah, I am that old.
Anyhow, there were a lot of choices I had to make, without any experience or knowledge of the consequences of making them. But that’s how many of us come to and come through higher education: not, “Learn, and choose,” but “Choose, and learn.” This is the pedagogical philosophy of Eliot’s elective system (and Pragmatism, and the perspectival multiplicity of Modernity, etc, etc) in a nutshell. Perhaps we have simply doubled back to Augustine’s Crede, ut intelligas – Believe, so that you may understand. So survived William James.
For me, one of the most agonizing choices was selecting which track of the Western Culture program I would take. Stanford sent a whole brochure just about that program – about the importance of this common learning experience for all freshmen, about the core readings, about the focus and approach of each of the eight tracks.
Here is the core reading list – not from the brochure, which I long ago discarded, but from John Guillory’s Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation (Chicago, 1993), pp. 31-32.
Hebrew Bible, Genesis
Plato, Republic, major portions of books 1-7
Homer, major selections from Iliad, Odyssey, or both
At least one Greek tragedy
New Testament, selections, including a gospel
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Politics
MEDIEVAL AND RENAISSANCE (WINTER QUARTER)
Augustine, Confessions, 1-9
Machiavelli, The Prince
Luther, Christian Liberty
Galileo, The Starry Messenger, The Assayer
Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy
A Shakesepearean tragedy
Cervantes, Don Quixote
Descartes, Discourse on Method, Meditations
Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government
MODERN (SPRING QUARTER)
Marx and Engels, Communist Manifesto
Freud, Outline of Psychoanalysis, Civilization and its Discontents
Rousseau, Social Contract, Confessions, Emile
Hume, Enquiries, Dialogues on Natural Religion
Goethe, Faust, Sorrows of Young Werther
Mill, Essay on Liberty, The Subjection of Women
Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals, Beyond Good and Evil
The sheer abundance of it all was overwhelming. The gates to the Temple of Wisdom were thrown open to me. Spread out before me, on a great banquet table, was a votive feast, the accumulated intellectual treasures of the ages. I simply had to select a seat at that table, and then I could partake of all that unimaginable bounty. Or so I envisioned this three-quarter freshman year requirement.
But which seat to choose?
Here’s a list of my options, with a parenthetical summary of what distinguished these programs from each other.
Great Works of Western Culture (readings drawn entirely from primary sources, with four hours of small-group discussions led by profs from Classics, English, etc., and a once a week lecture for all students in the track)
Europe: From the Middle Ages to the Present (taught by the History department, with three hours of lecture and two hours of group discussion per week, with discussion led by postdocs; this sequence was also a core requirement for History majors)
Western Thought and Literature (an interdisciplinary course offered through Humanities Special Programs, with emphasis on connections between social thought and visual arts, featuring three hours of lecture and two hours of discussion led by postdocs or advanced PhD students)
Ideas in Western Culture (this was the philosophy track, with three hours of lecture per week and two hours of discussions taught by junior profs)
Western Culture and Technology (this track introduced students to Stanford’s interdisciplinary undergraduate major in Values, Technology, Science, and Society, and featured three hours of lecture and two hours of discussion; it was a favorite choice for many aspiring engineers, though the catalog descriptions helpfully emphasized that no mathematics would be required for the course)
Literature and the Arts in Western Culture (taught by the English department, with a focus on literary works and with a chance for those who did not AP out of freshman writing to fulfill that requirement through this course sequence)
Structured Liberal Education (a residential interdisciplinary program that fulfilled not only the Western Culture distribution requirement, but also the distribution requirements in Literature and the Fine arts and Philosophical, Social and Religious Thought. Incoming freshmen had to apply for admission to this program.)
Those were seven of the eight options.
And then there was this option:
Conflict and Change in Western Culture
This track of the Western Culture program was introduced for Fall 1984 – along with, incidentally, the above-mentioned Philosophy track and English track.
Here’s the course catalog description for “Conflict and Change” for the 1984-85 and 1985-86 academic years:
“This sequence explores the dynamics of social difference – race, sex, and class – which underlie the most ambitious achievements in the group of cultures (Greek, Roman, Islamic, and European) known as ‘western.’ Politics (in a broad sense) and literature are used to illuminate each other, giving a more human perception of social history and a wider contextual understanding of outstanding individual works. Faculty from the humanities and social sciences lecture for three hours a week; small workshop groups meet for two hours each week, during which discussion, debate and student projects will take place.” (Courses and Degrees, 1984-85, pg. 623; Courses and Degrees, 1985-86, pg. 631).
Here we see the familiar critical lenses of race, class and gender foregrounded in one track of Stanford’s Western Culture program, which had itself only been part of the curriculum since 1980. We can see also the inclusion of Islamic civilization and thought “in the group of cultures…known as ‘western.’” The scare-quotes around “western,” as well as the lower-casing of the term, prompt some questions. Were these meant to suggest that Islamic thought was not technically western (or Western)? Or were these meant to suggest that the designation “western” itself was somehow wobbly or sketchy?
From my vantage point in the present, I can tell you this much: if “Western Civilization” is a thing at all, it is a thing that includes and draws from Islamic thought and culture – unless you think that Spain was somehow not part of “the West,” or you imagine that the writings of Averroes and Avicenna had no impact on the veritable explosion of learning and scholarship in Medieval Europe. Tell that to Dante.
But my present vantage point is of no use in answering the questions raised by that course description: what did that scare-quoted, lower-cased term “western” imply at the time?
The catalog description for “Conflict and Change” for the 1986-87 academic year may offer a clue:
“This sequence challenges some of the reverential notions of a noble, mythical entity whose revealed name is Western Culture. The canon of so-called ‘great works’ is in reality a recently invented fiction whose purpose, in part, is to justify the current relations of power between nations (East vs. West), classes, races and persons (male and female) by projecting them into the past. Conflict and Change is taught collaboratively by faculty from literature, sociology, anthropology and history in 2½ hours of lecture and 2 hours of discussion per week.” (Courses and Degrees, 1986-87, pg. 637)
Well, that certainly clears things up – though now I have to figure out what might account for this marked shift in tone between 1984 and 1986. Did the emphasis of the course itself change, or was the description simply revised to better reflect the actual approach of this track? Based on research I’ve already done, I’m leaning toward the second option — but I have to do more digging.
But remember: Bill Bennett doesn’t come to Stanford caterwauling about drastic curricular change until the spring of 1988. How Western Civilization endured for those four intervening years between the introduction of the “Conflict and Change” track and the fateful moment when Stanford University delivered its deathblow to the West by making slight alterations to its undergraduate curriculum is a mystery that I must do my best to explain in the book.
As for the very minor mystery of which of the eight tracks in the Western Culture program I chose — well, I will leave you, dear reader, to guess.
But I will say this much: to this day, I regard that agonizing process of deciding between those eight options as one of the most welcome and treasured choices with which I have ever been faced. Every college student deserves the opportunity to make those kinds of choices, rather than worrying about crushing debt or trying to gauge where the job market will be in four or five years and picking only those classes or majors that “pay.”
Such a system is sheer barbarism.