The humanities have become such a minor activity on college campuses that it is almost unimaginable that 30 years ago a change in a humanities course was a national controversy. That’s what happened, though, when an article appeared in The New York Times on Jan. 19, 1988 with the headline “In Dispute on Bias, Stanford Is Likely to Alter Western Culture Program.”
The year before, Jesse Jackson had led 500 students in a march around the Stanford University campus protesting the requirement that undergraduates take a course in Western Civilization, which they denounced as Eurocentric, white-male indoctrination. One professor in the Times piece called the course an “affront … to women and members of minority groups.” Now, Stanford was about to revise the course into a more diverse and global survey of culture from ancient times to the present.
It sounds like a familiar story to us, hardly the material of heated debate. When it appeared, however, it took the so-called canon wars that had been started by the National Endowment for the Humanities study “To Reclaim a Legacy” and Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, among other sallies, to a new level. Lay readers realized that what was happening at Stanford reverberated beyond the grounds of an elite research university. Here was not just a contest of ideas. The very definition of the United States was in play. Are we a “Western” nation? Is there any unum in the pluribus? The Times story crystallized those stakes. Soon after, the president of Stanford was on MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour debating with U.S. Education Secretary William Bennett.
We know who won. According to a recent report from the National Association of Scholars, the Stanford marchers “set off a ‘multiculturalist’ movement that swept away Western Civilization courses at most American colleges and set the terms of our cultural battles for decades to come.” Armed with a thesis unknown outside a few academic circles -- that Western Civilization was a myth concocted in the 1910s aimed at assimilating immigrant minorities and justifying American imperialism -- multiculturalists argued for a broader, richer presentation of peoples and traditions.
The NAS report shows in detail that the claim that Western Civ was but an invention of a nativist moment in U.S. history was false, but who in 1988 wanted to oppose more diversity in humanities assignments? To displace Western Civ would respect disadvantaged groups, it was said: more women authors in English class, samples of Africa in Art History 101, and how about grand historical episodes such as the “discovery” of America told through the eyes of the natives, not the invaders?
Well, it turns out, a crucial population didn’t agree. The Stanford march is a touchstone of academic history, but what happened afterward is forgotten. Stanford replaced Western Culture with Culture, Ideas & Values, a course with works by women and persons of color, class/race/gender themes, and at least one non-European culture covered.
Teachers had wide latitude. Within a few years, however, it was scrapped. A curriculum review in 1994 found that 72 percent of the students didn’t like it.
Their biggest complaint was with the diversity of the requirement, but not the diversity that usually springs to mind -- notably, racial or ethnic. Students griped that the many courses under the Culture, Ideas & Values umbrella didn’t have any overarching rationale and that each course failed to integrate Western and non-Western materials. They welcomed more diversity, but not if diversity meant a bit of this and a little of that with no big picture to hold them together.
The outcome at Stanford 30 years ago still holds. By tracing curriculum controversies over the decades, the NAS report reveals how the anti-Western Civ party won the campus but lost the students. After all, the slogan the marchers chanted -- “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Culture’s got to go!” -- was hardly a unifying call.
Humanities educators prefer to avoid this problem: diversity is not a curriculum. A Chinese menu of offerings tells students that civilization has no central thread; the American heritage flows in many streams. Which one is most important? Don’t ask. Why pick this one over that one? No reason. Diversity leads precisely to this indifference. No wonder the fields have lost their appeal, collecting only 12 percent of all bachelor’s degrees.
If humanities teachers can’t identify a limited corpus essential to their higher education, students wonder about the titles that end up on the syllabus. Are they the very best, the rare masterpieces, works that add up to a story of civilization? They needn’t be Western, but they must form a worthy tradition.
Educators took down Western Civ, but diversity prevented them from devising anything to take its place. What appeared during the 1980s to be an invigorating and just revision of a narrow curriculum turned out to be no curriculum at all.
And students realized it. The protesters in 1987 got all the attention, as they always do, but in fact, the Western Culture course was quite popular because it gave students a coherent story, an overarching structure. The diversity approach scrapped it because the identification or “construction” of a lineage, a canon or a core excludes other things.
And that’s true, one lineage excludes others, but that exclusion is necessary to a successful course in the humanities. This is a cognitive matter, and perhaps an aesthetic one, too, wherein learning is enhanced by the materials being learned having form and unity and design. It is not a political issue.
Professors who want to diversity their syllabi should have recognized this long ago. If they are tired of the West, of WASP America and of dead white males, they must replace them with new materials but set them within a similar structure. A grab bag of “diversity” won’t work -- it hasn’t worked. Teachers should drop the language of diversity and inclusion entirely and instead speak of the heritage of African art, the canon of feminist philosophy, the tradition of the Latin American novel …
The diversiphiles probably won’t do this, because a rich multicultural sense of the past was never their aim. They wanted to tear down Western Civ, not build up non-Western curricula. But if they can’t change their minds, they will continue to see their classrooms shrink, and their influence, too.