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How the West Was Lost at Stanford



Less than a decade ago, Stanford University prided itself, at least in the company of alumni and other financial backers, on its commitment to Western Culture—not just its commitment to Western values and civilization, but to a freshman requirement that was, at the time, perhaps the nation’s flagship course in the study of Great Books. Restored to the university in 1980, the lass was a particular point of pride among graduates who had been appalled to witness a cowed faculty eliminated the original course in response to student protests in the 1960s.

But just as it had been celebrated for Western Culture at the beginning of the decade, so would Stanford, by the end of the Eighties, become notorious for doing away with the commitment and the freshman course in a decision that would change the character of the institution. What appeared instead of Western Culture was Multiculture—a euphemism for speech censorship, witch hunts against nonconformists, debased curricula, and anti-Western zealotry. Looking backwards, one can see what happened in Palo Alto as a daunting story of the subversion of an institution which touched off a firestorm of intellectual anarchy that eventually swept the nation.

A large part of the problem was (and is) generational. Many of those student radicals who had turned their backs on Western values in the 1960s became tenured radicals in the 1980s and 1990s. Their preferred mode of dialogue—screaming from the soapbox—had become an irresistible form of speech within the groves of academe. The most notorious of these episodes took place on January 15, 1987, when a throng of 500 indignant students and faculty gathered near Stanford’s centrally located White Plaza to hear the Rev. Jesse Jackson. The purpose of the rally was to show support for the “rainbow agenda,” a program of minority set-asides in admissions and teaching, and for other causes popular with university radicals. But what began as the sort of protest commonplace on today’s college campuses set in motion events that would push the university toward becoming the nation’s first multicultural academy.

As the crowd stomped across the manicured lawns to present a list of demands to a meeting of the Faculty Senate, it translated its grievances into a chant that at would soon become infamous: “Hey hey, ho ho, Western culture’s got to go! Hey hey, ho ho, Western culture’s got to go!” Even at the time, campus observers were struck by the strange spectacle of some of America’s elite students and faculty engaged in an unqualified denunciation of the very civilization, after all, that had established universities like Stanford in the first place. The angry chant could not be stopped—and would go on to become the unofficial motto of a revolution with implications far beyond Stanford—because it succinctly articulated exactly what important people in higher education had been thinking for some time. Similar demonstrations followed in the tempestuous months ahead, and the slogan became synonymous with the university’s growing identity crisis, as many of Stanford’s leaders came to insist that the academy’s mission needed a thorough overhaul.

The nominal target of these demonstrations and protests was Stanford’s core curriculum, a required course called Western Culture in which freshmen surveyed the history and classics of the West. This course gave many students- especially in engineering and science majors—their primary exposure to the humanities. But the real target was much broader. The “Hey hey, ho ho” chant resonated powerfully because the Western Culture that had to go was not just a single class at Stanford, but the foundation of the West itself—to open inquiry, free-market capitalism, and constitutional democracy; to Christianity and Judaism; to the complex of values and judgments that help shape who we are.

The complaints about the West-present and past—that became chic following Jesse Jackson’s appearance in 1987 would be repeated over the next several years in many different contexts at Stanford. Increasingly, they would also be heard beyond—at the universities across the country for which Stanford was a model; in watered-down form in elementary and high-school classes; and in the popular media and arts where graduates of schools like Stanford have influence. Quite arbitrarily, it seemed at the time, the university’s required reading list, or canon, had symbolically come to represent deep grievances about an assortment of broader cultural issues. Although nobody knew it the, this landmark skirmish- the Bull Run, so to speak, of America’s coming “culture war”—would prove to be the labor pains of a nationwide multicultural movement.

As was well-reported at the time, this inchoate movement centered its complaints around the fact that most of the books studied in the Western Culture program had been written by “dead white males.” This charge was new and extraordinary because it attacked not the quality or historical significance of the Great Books, but rather the authors themselves—for being of the wrong race, gender, or class. To the protestors, a reading list was properly a cross-cultural celebration, and their chosen victims’ groups had not been invited to the party. Their exclusion had to end, and so Bill King, president of the Black Student Union (BSU), told Time Magazine, “We want the idea of a canon eliminated.”

According to the new thinking, upper-class white males may been born with a silver spoon in their mouths, but the minorities they oppressed were born with teaching credentials. This thinking would have profound implications for the entire university. (As the late philosopher Sidney Hook aptly observed, if only minority professors were qualified to teach books authored by minorities, similar reasoning would dictate that only women could teach gynecology, only fat people obesity, only hungry people the physiology of starvation—or, for that matter, only Nazis could teach about the Third Reich.) Whereas the Western Culture canon had been based upon a belief in universalism—the belief that the insights contained within the West’s great works were potentially available to everybody—the new curriculum embraced particularism: what one may know is determined by the circumstances of his birth.

This was the crux of the whole debate. The Western Culture protestors were attacking not just “dead white males” but the idea of universalim itself. They rejected the idea that certain truths transcend the accidents of birth and these objective truths are in principle available to everyone—whether young or old, rich or poor, male or female, white or black. Within this traditional framework, the university’s role was to be a refuge, somewhat outside the confines of a given culture, where individuals could disregard parochial blinkers of ethnicity, age, gender, class, or race and search for these transcendent truths. In rejecting the West, the protestors repudiated this entire framework and south a very different kind of academy.

“There have been faculty concerned about this issue from the beginning,” Anthropology Prof. James Gibbs, a former Dean of undergraduate Education, noted about the nature of the changes Stanford undertook. “The process of marshaling support for curricular changes both intellectual and political-and properly so.” In the Fall of 1987, another series of political protests targeted the Committee on Undergraduate Studies (CUS), a group of key faculty charged with drafting possible legislation for a new freshman requirement. At one such rally, freshman Naomi Martin declared, “we are here to send a message to the CUS that racism in our education will not be tolerated.” Chanting “Down with racism, Down with Western Culture, Up with diversity.” Students disrupted the meeting. The BSU’s Bill King described the purpose of the protest: “(The CUS) was getting a bit timid and we wanted them to be well aware of the dedication to changing the Western Culture program.”

Vice Provost William Chace was one of the few to express alarm at the politicization of the university: “It’s a version of academic populism, and populism is always dangerous for a university.” But the more common reaction to the protestors was one of appeasement. One professor went so far as to compare the atmosphere on campus to that of Vichy France. At the very least, the charges of racism, sexism, and ethnocentrism- often explicit, always implicit, and constantly repeated in protests, classroom discussions, dormitory programs, and The Stanford Daily—discourage supporters of the existing Western Culture program from voicing their views.

By the end of the Fall of 1987, the CUS had considered four sets of proposals, each more radical than the one that had come before. The final proposal mandated the study of one “nonwestern” culture and eviscerated the core-reading list of great Western works. History Prof. Paul Seaver euphemistically explained that because of the uproar that had followed the first draft, additional drafts were written that yielded a more “positive” response. He was hopeful that the final draft would pass, because he “didn’t get the sense of hostility” that had greeted the CSU’s earlier work. Prof. Seaver’s optimism was premature: A last-minute protest by the BSU almost derailed the CUS report, until the CUS also agreed to hire additional minority and female professors to teach the new classes.

By the time Chace launched a last-ditch effort in early 1988 to keep part of the core reading list, he was too late to turn the tide of the debate. Denouncing the Chace proposal, Feminist Studies Chair Diane Middlebrook wrote that “a vote in favor of retaining a core list is a vote against the spirit of criticism in which whole review of Western Culture was undertaken/” There could be no better summary of the “whole review of Western Culture” that had taken place: driven by protest, its “spirit” was entirely reluctant to accept even a partial list of the West’s Great Books. By the time the matter came to a vote in Stanford’s Faculty Senate in March 1988, Chace’s compromised was compromised further. Western Culture would be replaced with a new requirement called Cultures, Ideas, and Values, but the new CIV classes would retain six token books from the original core during a “Transition year.”

As the faculty Senate deliberated, protesters waited outside, ready to disrupt should Stanford’s faculty vote the “Wrong” way. Based on his experiences over the previous year, History Prof. Seaver voiced apprehension: “If the senate shoots (the proposal) down, it would be terribly disillusioning. As a University, we would be in trouble.” Presumably, the “disillusionment” would be on the part of those activists who had fought for so long and so hard, and the “Trouble” would arise because no one knew who they might go after next. The Western Culture debate involved a vital issue, the Black Student Union’s Bill king had ominously warned and would “set the tone for the next couple of years in terms of minority relations to the University.” But the agitators had little cause for concern. The faculty Senate approved the so-called “CIV compromise” by an overwhelming margin of 39-4. Most members of the Faculty Senate did not want to be labeled “racist” or “Sexist.” Moreover, Stanford had received some bad press because of the protests, and the administration desired a speedy end to the debate and the public-relations problem it posed.

Founded upon the twin plinths of cultural relativism and determinism, CIV sought to retool the reading list for a world devoid of universal truths. Having embraced race, gender, and class as proxies for some kind of gnostic knowledge, the educators who taught CIV divided the reading list among cultural and racial constituencies, much the same way a city council might gerrymander districts. The “common Elements” among the CIV tracks, according to the program syllabus written a few years after the smoke from this battle had cleared, were not perennial questions like “What is justice?” or “What constitutes the good life?” but:

Works by women, minorities and persons of color;

Works introducing issues of race, gender and class;

Works of non-European provenance.

As Provost James Rosse wrote in a revealing letter, the new freshman requirement would “include the study of great works as well as works reflecting the role and contributions of minorities and women.” Provost Rosse unwittingly admitted the truth: included works did not necessarily have to be “Great” if they fulfilled the function of “Reflecting the role and contributions of minorities and women.” As we shall see, many CIV books would meet one criterion or the other, but few would meet both.

During 1988-89, the compromise “transition year,” all the CIV tracks read The Bible, Plato, St. Augustine, Machiavelli, Rousseau, and Marx. Thereafter, quite a bit more was left to the discretion of professors as the “common readings” (a term displacing “canon”) consisted of:

  • Hebrew Bible and Christian Bible
  • A Classical Greek philosopher
  • An Early Christian thinker
  • A Renaissance dramatist
  • An Enlightenment thinker
  • Karl Marx

In short, Plato was replaced with the more general category of “ancient Greek Philosophers,” Augustine with “Early Christian thinkers,” Machiavelli with “Renaissance dramatists,” and Rousseau with “Enlightenment thinkers.” With the important exception of Marx (who is never deconstructed in the politically correct university), the altered list implied that individual writers are the delegates of certain constituencies—ancient Greeks, early Christians, etc.—from which they derived their right to be on the reading list. In a reverse of direction from the old course, authors were chosen precisely because they typified some cultural group, rather than because their writings were immortal and had transcended such particulars.

Few questioned how studying cultural differences could possibly be of value if ethnic experiences were incomprehensibly foreign to others. On the contrary, History Prof. Paul Robinson remarked, “We are eager to replace a canonized and seemingly unalterable ‘core list’ with a process aimed to create ‘a common intellectual experience.’” Prof. Robinson was referring to CIV’s founding legislation, which mandates that the class “provide students with the common intellectual experience of broadening their understanding of ideas and values.” The goal of the freshman requirement had shifted subtly from providing students with a common background, defined objectively in the form of a great works reading list, to provide a common experience, subjectively defined by those doing the reading. What each author actually wrote (and whether any of it is true) was much less important than his effect on students. Hence in 1922 the philosophy track added Chief Seattle to the Course Reader. Because American Indian culture is as alien to most freshmen as ancient Greek culture, Chief Seattle presumably had instructional, or “broadening,” value roughly equivalent to that of Plato or Aristotle. In this way, although the different racks shared few authors in common, they were still able to provide 1,600 freshman with a “common intellectual experience”—not by transmitting common knowledge, but by transmitting a common sensation of “Broadening understanding.” The course instructors, however, never explained in what direction students’ minds should be broadened, or why any particular direction was preferable to another.

In practice, of course, a number of faculty members found it far from easy to create a new canon ex nihilo. Some Professors chose to keep most of the old books, but changed the course focus. The philosophy track, for instance, continued to require both Plato and Aristotle, but wedged reading about Australian aborigines between the two. Among aboriginal “philosophical” insights are the concept of “dream-time,” a circular and anti-rational way of viewing cause and effect, and the belief that women become pregnant by crossing spiritually enchanted patches of ground. The class paid little attention to whether the aboriginal claims are actually true. Rather, discussions contrasted the reading with the “logocentric” approach of Western philosophers like Aristotle or Descartes. The upshot was that logic and illogic were put on the same plane and that truth and consistency were considered just two values among many.

The course instructors ignored the fact that the raison d’etre of philosophy is the discovery of transcultural truth, and that ipso facto the discipline is predominately a Western pursuit. The anti-Western focus required glossing over another embarrassing detail: The aboriginal readings were actually written by Western anthropologists because the aborigines lacked a written language- not to mention anthropology itself.

For instructors in other tracks, the CIV program provided the desired vehicle for a comprehensive revolution. Perhaps most extreme is “Europe and the Americas,” a CIV track developed by Anthropology Prof. Renato Rosaldo, one of the foremost advocates of curricular change. The new track focuses on issues of race, class, and gender—to the exclusion of almost everything else. Marx’s historic treatise on class warfare, The Communist Manifesto, is still required, and from there the 17-and18-year old freshmen’s educational experience deteriorates rather rapidly. They study Guatemalan revolutionary Rigoberta Menchu, whose book I...Rigoberta Menchu relates “the effects on her of feminist and socialist ideologies.” The story tracks Menchu’s journey from poverty and despair to the center of the Central American revolutionary movement. Next, black woman writer Zora Neale Hurston’s book Their Eyes Were Watching God, which presents a semi-autobiographical critique of male domination in American society. The hero of With His Pistol in His Hand by American Parades is a Mexican who shoots a local sheriff in Texas and runs away from the law, as he realizes that “there is one law for Anglo-Texans, another for Texas-Mexicans.” Juan Rulfo’s The Burning Plain is dominated by “impotence and despair,” as Mexican Indians struggle to eke out a living in the howling desert. Sandra Cisneros’ House on Mango Street emphasizes the stultification and drudgery of the life of a little girl in a downtown slum.

The last week of Fall quarter lectures are devoted to the topic of “Forging Revolutionary Selves.” In the Spring quarter, students are required to complete a project or lengthy paper as a significant portion (one-third) of the final grade. The Spring 1992 course syllabus explained that projects in the past have included:

  • A skit on the debates around culture curriculum
  • A photoessay on San Francisco, organized around a theme
  • A report on a field work project on a migrant workers camp
  • A violin duct designed to create an intercultural esthetic
  • An Aztec newspaper from the year 1524
  • A board game called “First Contact”
  • A history of women’s athletics in the US

According to one student in the class, that year’s projects even included a documentary on a Grateful Dead rock concert. OF course, what migrant workers, violin performances, women’s athletics, or Jerry Garcia have to do with great literature, Europe, the Americas, or any serious study of non-Western culture is a complete mystery.

CIV’s amorphous mission—to “Broaden” the experience of students-should not, however, be confused with “anything goes.” Rather, the new canon is vague precisely so that teachers can canonize their personal beliefs. Prof. Rosaldo’s fundamental assumptions regarding the unique evils of the West, which formed the basis of his complaints against the Western Culture program, have become enshrined in the “Europe and the Americas” reading list, as even the handful of more traditional Western works are “deconstructed” to show hidden “Eurocentric” biases.

Thus Augustine’s Confessions, rather than a discourse on religious faith, becomes a study in “the body and the deep interior self,” followed by a discussion of “multicultural selves in Navaho country.” The Book of Genesis accompanies a lecture on “labor, gender, and self in the Philippine uplands,” and Plato’s Republic helps illustrate “anti-assimilationist movements.” In the Winter quarter, the course compares the U.S. Bill of Rights with Lee Iacocca’s Car Buyer Bill of Rights.

The appeasement of campus radicals by the Stanford administration in substituting CIB for Western Culture in 1988 threatened to create a new public relations crisis. AS the heat from the media spotlight grew more intense the administration tried to cover its tracks. The administration was not eager for alumni and parents, whose contributions finance the university, to identify the political motivations behind the change from Western Culture to CIV. AS the national media spotlighted the curricular battle, Official Stanford launched an aggressive public relations campaign aimed at convincing parents and alumni that the changes were benign, modest, and academically legitimate. A two-page letter to “Stanford Parents” in the Fall of 1988 from Dean Junkerman and Thomas Wasow, Dean of Undergraduate Studies, exemplified this effort: “we hope that a concise insiders’ summary of what happened will serve to allay any misapprehension you may feel from accounts you may have read of what is, in fact, a fairly modest (although imaginative) curricular reform...The discussion was carried on at an impressively high intellectual level, clearly putting questions of pedagogical principle above any political considerations.”

Meanwhile, activists on campus received precisely the opposite message. In a statement circulated only on campus, just before the letter to parents, Wasow wrote: “As has been widely reported in the press, Stanford’s Faculty Senate voted on March 31, 1988 to make substantial changes in its Western Culture Program; those changes will take effect in the autumn of 1989.”

Now “modest” and “substantial” are relative terms, and it is certainly possible that the same curricular change could be viewed as modest by one observer and substantial by another. But in this case, the same observer described the same change in diametrically opposed ways! Dean Wasow could have believed only one of the statements he wrote. The statement circulated on campus was more likely to be the accurate one, because campus activists (unlike parents scattered across the country) were in a better position to monitor its veracity.

Dean Wasow’s double talk echoed the equivocation of Stanford’s President Donald Kennedy. Throughout the year of protest and intimidation, Kennedy maintained a strange silence. He did not distinguish between a political attack and an intellectual critique; for him, as for many others, that difference seemed to have collapsed. But by early 1988, he declared that it was not his place to dictate the content of the curriculum, and that such decisions should be left to the faculty. He had “reached no a priori conclusion about what the outcome should be” and would await the votes of others. While washing his hands of the impending decision, President Kennedy said little about the misuse of political force at these academic discussions. Having failed to make the distinction between politics and academics earlier, he was in no position to do so then. Once the change was enacted, however, the president again vigorously defended the new program before the public: “The decision-makers really operated in a very free and a very rational and very constructive environment.”

On campus, the administration endorsed the efforts of the protestors, if not explicitly, then by tacit approval of inappropriate conduct and pressure tactics. Off campus, in order to facilitate fundraising efforts among parents and alumni who supported the popular Western Culture survey, it carefully maintained the image of diligent educational patricians. In the wake of the Western Culture debate, Official Stanford sent Prof. Rosaldo (later to be among the most anti-western of the CIV teachers) to alumni meetings across the country, where he directed the same eloquence which had galvanized student protestors at reassuring disgruntled donors. Even Vice Provost Chace, former critic of academic populism, closed ranks with the new regime, defending it in a statement to The Washington Post: “There is a widespread conviction here that a very good course, now modified in reasonable ways, will continue to be taught effectively.”

The fall of Stanford had begun.

This article is adapted from The Diversity Myth: ‘Multiculturalism’ and the Politics of Intolerance at Stanford by David Sacks and Peter Thiel, published by the Independent Institute in Oakland, California.


David O. Sacks is a Research Fellow at The Independent Institute and co-author of The Diversity Myth. He is Chief Operating Officer for Zenefits Insurance Services, former Chief Operating Officer at PayPal, Inc., and Founder and former Chief Executive Officer at Yammer, Inc.

Peter A. Thiel is a Research Fellow at The Independent Institute; Founder and Managing Member of Clarium Capital Management, LLC; Co-Founder of Paypal, Palantir Technologies, Mithril Capital Management, and Valar Ventures; Managing Partner of Founders Fund; and co-author of The Diversity Myth.






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