U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Choices and Changes in Western Culture

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

Strongly recommended:

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Politics
Virgil, Aeneid



Augustine, Confessions, 1-9
Dante, Inferno
More, Utopia
Machiavelli, The Prince
Luther, Christian Liberty
Galileo, The Starry Messenger, The Assayer

Strongly recommended:

Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy
Aquinas, selections
A Shakesepearean tragedy
Cervantes, Don Quixote
Descartes, Discourse on Method, Meditations
Hobbes, Leviathan
Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government



Voltaire, Candide
Marx and Engels, Communist Manifesto
Freud, Outline of Psychoanalysis, Civilization and its Discontents
Darwin, selections

Strongly recommended:

Rousseau, Social Contract, Confessions, Emile
Hume, Enquiries, Dialogues on Natural Religion
Goethe, Faust, Sorrows of Young Werther
Nineteenth-century novel
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.

13 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. What a moving piece on the loss we have suffered as a culture due to our acquiescence to the corporate university. The latest evidence for the narrative of this tragedy was in this summer’s phenomenal if unjustly put-upon “Democracy in Chains” thank you for this L.D.

  2. Thanks Chris.

    One of the many hazards of writing about this history is that people take it as an occasion to relitigate what ought to have been on a decades-old reading list, which is not at all what I’m interested in doing. I had a reader taking me to task on Twitter because so many important works/philosophers are “missing” from the reading list above. (Me: “Yeah, I’ll be sure to pass that memo along to the 1988 Stanford Faculty Senate.”) I mean, I had enough of that debate the first time around, thankyaverymuch.

    Instead, my aim is to explain how these decades-old debates over undergraduate curriculum, and particularly about the study of “the West,” influenced subsequent developments in higher ed and continue to shape our current situation. That is a presentist concern, I suppose, insofar as “presentism” is an expression of whatever contemporary concerns I or others may have that might make this historical account seem relevant to our moment. (See Dan Wickberg’s recent comment at the blog.)

    But I don’t know what to call that impulse to treat that past battle over curriculum as a present one — it’s not exactly the flip side of the “good kind” of historical presentism. And it’s not really antiquarianism (which is, btw, another thing I need to guard against — the inside baseball of Stanford curricular debates may only be of interest to a small number of people, and is probably not of interest to anyone “for its own sake”). Antiquarianism is a retreat into the past. Is it something in between? Nostalgia? Denialism? I guess it’s just ahistoricism, which is not at all the same as presentism, because “presentism” necessarily assumes a past.

    But it doesn’t much matter what my aims are. Once a piece of writing is out of our hands and out in the world, people will use it for their own purposes. If people want to march on the Quad today because Hayek or Hildegard of Bingen are missing from a 1988 reading list, I suppose I should be glad that something I wrote roused them to action. But I will not be joining that protest. I’m more worried about present problems: like, how to make sense out of (read: how to make history out of) this all-too-memorable past, for the good of some future I can’t even imagine.

  3. L.D., What a privilege and thrill to have such choices as an undergraduate. To this day I do feel my education foundation is lacking even though I have read most of the text in the above list on my own out of sheer curiosity. This vision, which I didn’t know existed at the time, totally by-passed me. I went to a state university in Texas and ended up on the career track of the business school. Self-teaching in the humanities has been my most persistent, and often lonely, path. Sigh.

  4. Yes. I really lucked into a world that didn’t match anything I’d known before, or anything I was raised to be, or anything that I was able to be again until years and years later. And it cost me an awful lot, financially and otherwise, to see that degree through to the end — an awful lot. It cost so much that I’ve second-guessed the worth of the effort, many times.

    And here’s a not-so-secret secret: the value of that Western Culture course had very little to do with the supposed intrinsic worth of the works on the reading list. Swap out those 15 books for any other 15 books — yes, any other 15 books — and the effect would have been the same. The greatness wasn’t in the books; it was in the university’s treating them, and expecting us to treat them, as something that mattered. Finally figuring that out, years later, closed an absolutely cavernous gap in my education that no reading list could ever have fixed.

    If you took it upon yourself over the years to read these books, and others like them, out of a sheer desire to know/understand, then I would simply reassure you that whatever gap you were self-conscious about had already closed.

    Everyone who goes to college should be given the time and the space and the resources to pursue — or, thanks to distribution requirements, to be pursued by — a broad, humanistic education as a foundation for or complement to whatever skills or training they might seek. Our current system of debt peonage and defunding coupled with inflated credentialism didn’t just spring out of the earth, nor is it the gloriously efficient oeuvre of the Invisible Hand at work in every libertarian fantasy.* It’s the result of conscious decisions and cynical politics; it’s the result of bad-faith efforts to present an array of bad choices to the many, for the benefit of the few. It has not simply happened; it has been done. It ought to be undone.

    Anyway, the table is set, there is plenty of room, the candles are lit, the great feast is before us. Ho, whosoever thirsteth, come and drink!

    *Yep, that’s the image I was aiming for.

    • ” Swap out those 15 books for any other 15 books — yes, any other 15 books — and the effect would have been the same. The greatness wasn’t in the books; it was in the university’s treating them, and expecting us to treat them, as something that mattered.” These are the sentences that really brought home the loss/change that you are talking about home to me.

      • Thanks, Anthony.

        At our 2013 S-USIH conference in Irvine, someone asked me what I saw as the biggest difference between then and now. I talked about the poignancy of reading these furious (by academe’s standards) debates between professors arguing over what books their students should read, and how quaint those arguments seem to me now. “The question is no longer, ‘What books shall our students read?,’ but ‘Shall our students read any books at all?'” That was an important realization for me in my own research, and has helped shape my approach to “all sides” of that antiquated but still weirdly influential debate.

  5. There are several interesting questions raised by the above post and thread, but I’m just going to focus on one strand here.

    Bracketing the question of whether everyone *should* be exposed to distribution requirements and just assuming for this comment that there are going to be dist. requirements and/or some ‘general education’ requirement, it seems to me there is a divide between, on the one hand, institutions that aim to expose students to a set of ‘core’ or common texts (Stanford, at least in the years that L.D. is writing about, falls into this category), and, on the other hand, institutions whose schemes of distribution and/or ‘general education’ purport to do all sorts of nifty, worthwhile, beneficial, ambitious things but are not concerned with having most or all students read a particular set of books.

    I’ve always assumed that, in the core-set-of-works approach, the identity of the books was important. So I’m maybe a little surprised by L.D.’s statement that the value of Stanford’s Western Culture course did not lie (mostly) in the “intrinsic worth” of the works, although I think I get the point that the attitude toward the texts, whatever they were, was the paramount thing. Still, It seems to me these core-set-of-texts approaches presuppose some notion of ‘cultural literacy’ and/or induction into a presumptively ‘great tradition’ or traditions, and in that context the identity of the works has to matter — probably not to the point where a campus gets ripped apart over it, but still, the choice of texts has to matter from the standpoint of the basic assumptions. Or so I would have thought.

    I guess I’m old-fashioned and/or have not sufficiently questioned my own assumptions or prejudices, but a lot of the books on the 1980s Stanford Western Culture required and recommended lists, as given in the post, still seem fairly ‘obvious’ to me, though one might want to tinker/replace/supplement w.r.t. some and also include, as I gather was one of the demands at the time, more non-Western items/voices. (Though I haven’t read all those in that list; some, but not all.)

  6. Thanks for this comment.

    What you’re getting at, I think, is the problem of historicizing.

    For the disputants in the 1980s (and, by extension, the late 1970s, when the “Western Culture” course was created/piloted), the idea of there being “intrinsic” qualities of the books on the list mattered a great deal.

    It’s only in retrospect that we can see what the “real” stakes were. That is, even as we acknowledge what was at stake for them, we recognize what was at stake for us — that is, what brought us to our present moment. Those who championed that list believed — or at least argued — that the works on that list merited inclusion because of some intrinsic/enduring value. They would never have said, “Any 15 books that we all read in common will do nicely.” So in that sense you are absolutely right about what their sense of the matter was.

    But I, looking back on that debate — which I first began to do in a scholarly way in 2011, as I’ve written about here — can see what the “characters” in my story could not see: the bigger picture, the fact that the particular selections mattered less in terms of accomplishing the aims of the course than the more fundamental idea of reading common texts together.

    This is the irony — and also, for me, the agony — of historicizing. As I mentioned above, I first talked about this publicly in 2013, the first year that I attended/presented at the USIH conference. (Robin Marie blogged about what I said.)

    In addition to what I noted above, I said: If I could go back in time, I would go the humanistic professors on both sides of the debate, true believers all in the importance of reading and writing, grab them by the shoulders, shake them, and say, “Stop! You are making enemies of each other over competing reading lists, while neoliberal economists are taking over the Business school. The phone call is coming from inside the house! The barbarians are inside the gates; they’re in the gotdamn Business School.”

    But I can’t do that.

    All I can bring is the perspective of distance, of time past and passing.

    And time to come? Well, that is a job for the prophets and the poets, and I would not claim to be either.

    • Fair enough, and point taken on historicizing.

      If what appears crucial in retrospect about the Stanford course was the “idea of reading common texts together,” that would still leave the first substantive paragraph of my above comment intact: i.e., there was/is a significant difference between gen ed programs requiring a common set of books that everyone reads and gen ed programs that do not care at all about having everyone read a common set of books. I’m not saying that *you* have to address the sources of, or reasons for, that particular difference (which has probably been written about by others) in any great detail, or even at all; I’m just noting its existence.

  7. LD: You concluded this post in a fashion that was unexpected to me. Based on your introductory paragraphs, I thought you would end by musing on the impossibility of making a well-informed subjective choice on just ONE of these EIGHT tracks, as a young person. I would’ve been bewildered by the array, and would today most likely be writing with some buyer’s remorse, no matter which I had chosen. So I was surprised at the end by your celebration of choice—that you relished it and were happy about it. I’d say rather that you were fortunate—to have possessed a solid enough sense of your arc of interests to have chosen well. Luck was in the air. I’m guessing that, had I been in your young shoes, and given what I remember about myself, four of the tracks might’ve worked for me. It would’ve been a coin flip.

    Otherwise I’m *entirely* with you that the actual selection of books read matter less than treating them as books that *should* be taken seriously. From that genuflection a number of consequences follow in relation to thinking (or learning to think critically), close reading, and debate. – TL

    Postscript guess: You chose the Western Thought and Literature track?

  8. Tim, thanks for this thoughtful reading. A brief comment now, and maybe more later when I can find the wherewithal. If this week hasn’t killed me, next week surely will.

    I too was bewildered by the array of options and overwhelmed by the choice, because all the options (save perhaps one — you can guess) seemed outstanding. I didn’t realize that my post came across as celebrating choosing — God, I hate choosing. I am just grateful that, no matter what I might have chosen, I would have chosen well, because all of these works — all save the Bible and Shakespeare (who was recommended, but not required!) — were texts I had never read, nor had I heard of most of the authors. And I believed the brochure; I believed that working my way through this course with my classmates was, in fact, the essence and heart of a university education.

    Was that course Dumbo’s magic feather? I don’t know. It took me an awful long time — decades — to figure out I could fly.

    As to what course I chose — I chose the one that seemed like it offered the very most of the very best, one that would have appealed to someone with a Fundamentalist upbringing, even as I was looking for an escape from it.

    As my grandmother always said, It’s a long road that has no turning.

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