Phi Beta Cons

Western Civ – and ‘Dead White Guys’ – on Trial at Stanford

Statue of Plato at the Academy of Athens. (Dreamstime)

Should the underpinnings of Western Civilization – which ultimately produced a modern society built on liberty, equality and justice – be tossed aside because they were developed by white men? Does a college education built on teaching themes of race, class and gender trump teaching students how much of the world evolved from barbarism to civil society? 

Among most professors today, the answer is yes; identity politics is the modern university’s highest altar. But there’s a chance to take a stand, to reject such a notion — and students at Stanford University, where decades ago faculty rejected the teaching Western Civilization, might be the ones who do it.

The question of whether Stanford should require students to study Western Civilization to earn a diploma is expected to be voted on next month by undergrads at the school, thanks to a campus ballot initiative put forth by editors at the conservative-leaning Stanford Review publication. 

Proponents face an uphill battle.

This notion that it’s oppressive and offensive and unnecessary to read the works of “dead white guys” – men like Plato and John Locke – has permeated Stanford, which tossed aside Great Books like yesterday’s garbage. Jesse Jackson famously led a demonstration there chanting “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Culture’s got to go” in the 1980s, part of protests that led the university – where campus radicals of the 60s had become the faculty of the 80s – to reject teaching Western Civ.

Today, some students who pay roughly $46,000 annually in tuition and fees to attend the private university are clamoring for an education grounded in common sense.

“Western societies forged literature from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar to Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction in America; technologies from the steam engine to the Internet; and values like free speech, due process, skepticism of authority, rationalism, and equality under the law. A mere two quarters would impart this history to generations of students, documenting the stories of Western nations, politics, culture, philosophy, economics, literature, art, values, and science from Ancient Greece to the present,” student defenders state in a manifesto that accompanied their ballot initiative.

“Students would immerse themselves in the writings of Homer, Plato, Locke, Douglass, and de Beauvoir. The scientific revolutions hundreds of Stanford students use would gain historical context. We would lament the horrors of slavery and oppression – and applaud those who fought for freedom,” it added.

Let’s hope this time around, higher education wins the day.

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