A few weeks ago, I published the core reading list for Stanford’s defunct “Western Culture” course. Today, I’m starting a series of blog posts (yes, another one) in which we can consider together each of the works/authors on the required reading list.
You may be asking yourself: “Okay, but how is that list U.S. intellectual history? There’s not a single American work on it.” (This was, by the way, a major critique that Carl Degler leveled during discussions about revamping/revising/retiring the course – he wanted a core course that would emphasize American thought and culture.)
It’s true that these are not in themselves works of American thought, strictly construed. But American thinkers were engaging with all these texts long before they ended up cheek by jowl on the same 1980s era college course syllabus.
Moreover, if we want to understand some of the ideational currents running through our unelected ruling class in Silicon Valley, we should probably pay attention to what the little darlings – or at least a cohort of them — were reading when they were young and impressionable freshmen. Stanford University was the matrix for many a Silicon Valley dot-com entrepreneur; this reading list is one way to plug in.
Finally, it’s American intellectual history because I’m writing about it. (Nor am I the first to do so.) Anything rattling around in our heads and coming out on the page is fair game for further collective reflection.
And I figured that most of our readers have read some of these works already, or would like to, or feel like they ought to do so, or ought to have done so. So, if you’ve been on pins and needles to read the Summa Theologica or John Stuart Mill, now’s your chance.
The first work on the list is “Hebrew Bible, Genesis.” So let’s go there…
I have written plenty at this blog about the Bible in American thought. But even when I’m not writing about the Bible, I’m writing through it (or it is writing through me). You can hear its influence in my words on the page – in metaphors I choose, in cadences of speech. That is not a sign of erudition; that’s a sign that I grew up steeped in the language of the the King James translation and, from about the age of ten, immersed as well in the copious footnotes of the Dispensationalist crank C.I. Scofield. And in that I am hardly unique – though I was not, in my experience, typical of most Stanford freshmen.
So what I thought I’d talk about in relation to Genesis on the Stanford reading list is what it meant or suggested to treat that text – and to treat it in a particular way — as a necessary component of a liberal education.
Needless to say, I already had a Bible when I went to college, and you can bet I took it with me. So when I was in the bookstore the weekend before classes started, buying my textbooks for the first time in my life, and I was pulling all the required texts for my course, I debated on whether or not to purchase the Bible there on offer among the required books.
Here it is, the very thing: The New Oxford Annotated Bible: Revised Standard Version (sans Apocrypha – so a very Protestant version). It cost $19.50 – the most expensive of all the books I was buying for Western Culture that quarter, though certainly not the most expensive textbook I purchased. (That honor goes to whatever behemoth of a textbook was assigned in my Intro to Econ course, taught by supply-side economist Michael Boskin.)
That was a lot of money, and I didn’t have a lot of money. And also, I have to admit, I was a little dubious about this translation, of which I had not heard. Had I known to flip to Isaiah 7:14 and check for a virgin (as opposed to a young woman), I might not have bought it. But even without that litmus test, I had my doubts. Is the translation simply modernized? Is it different in meaning? What’s going on here?
And I suppose if I were familiar with Dwight Macdonald, I might not have bought it either. He wrote with sneering contempt about the RSV a middlebrow mealy-mouthed masscult mediocrity of a translation. If I had somewhere picked up the idea that Dwight Macdonald was the model of an educated person, I may have left that Bible on the shelf.
But here’s what I decided: “I am in college now. I am here to learn – to learn everything. I want to learn how to understand the Bible the way college professors do [however that was]. So if this is the required version of the Bible, this is the version I’m going to use.”
That decision-making process took all of about two minutes as I stood there in the bookstore aisle, and, on the face of it, it seems like a pretty minor choice: buy this book or not? I didn’t really grasp what a momentous decision it was for me to say, Yes, I will be open to thinking about this book in a different way. As it turns out, I was not quite as open to that approach as I thought would be – at least not at first. But looking back, I can say that my education in “Western Culture” began not at our first class meeting, but there in the Stanford Bookstore, simply because the curriculum required that we read the Bible, not as divine writ, but as a text among texts – in the same basket with Homer and Euripides and Virgil and Lucretius.
It’s also worth noting that the Western Culture course, which ran from 1980-1988, overlaps rather nicely with the “Reagan Revolution” and the heyday of the “Moral Majority” in American politics. For most of the professors at Stanford, and no doubt for most of the students too, that political movement and moment was something peculiar and alien and perhaps a bit inscrutable. No instructors in the Western Culture course would have treated the Bible as Jerry Falwell treated it – inerrant, infallible, the literal word of God without contradiction, and so on. They would have had enough work on their hands trying to show those few of us who came from such backgrounds that we could treat the text differently. It was a painful lesson for me, certainly.
But in many ways the Bible, or appeals to it, or invocations of it, sincere or not, was in those years – and still is – a force in American political life and thought.
And so was – and still is — the supply-side economic theory of Michael Boskin and his fellow travelers.
Which set of ideas from the 1980s has ended up being more important to the champions of “Western Civilization”?
That’s an open discussion question, and I’m interested to hear what others think.