U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Western Civilization and Its Discontents

Editor's Note

This is the last in a series of posts on the common readings in Stanford’s 1980s “Western Culture” course. You can see all posts in the series here: Readings in Western Culture.

The final author assigned to all sections of the Western Culture course at Stanford was Freud.  The reading list specified a couple of texts:  An Outline of the Principles of Pyschoanalysisand Civilization and its Discontents.  Here was the capstone, the culmination of three quarters of reading and discussion: the modern age, the age of Freud, the age of science triumphing over mystery.

This teleology was perhaps not explicit in the Western Culture curriculum.  Indeed, in some ways the curriculum folded in upon itself, beginning in myth and symbol and ending in the same stories, Gaea to Gaea, Oedipus to Oedipus, Thanatos to Thanatos.  But the chronological sweep of the program, the historic arrangement of the readings, and the geographic shift northward and westward, from the ancient Mediterranean to modern Europe (but not, interestingly, the United States) lent itself to a sense of the progress of thought – or, perhaps, the Progress of Thought, as if “the great tradition” were a pageant proceeding from sunrise to sunset, from the “infancy” of humankind to its (presumed) maturity in the modern era.

Such an arc was, of course, thoroughly Freudian.  In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud explained the broadly religious sensibility of the oneness of all things, the “oceanic” sense of belonging to the eternal, as a vestige of the earliest stages of individual human development, an infantile egotism that has not yet learned to control and channel desires.  This vestigial, infantile omnisensationalism exists within people and within society alongside more “advanced” ways of living, just as crocodiles and other reptiles exist alongside more advanced forms of life.

Beware the teleology whose purpose is to place its very builder at the pinnacle of the temple.

The sense of progress, advance, science, the embrace of the modern, the triumph of “the civilized” over “the primitive” – this idea of advancement and sophistication undergirded some of the defenses of the Western Culture requirement in the 1980s and undergirded the idea of “Western Civilization” and a Western canon more generally.  This was the sentiment behind not only Saul Bellow’s infamous remark about the (nonexistent, he suggested) Tolstoy of the Zulus, but also Sidney Hook’s ferocious polemic against the Black student protestors at Stanford.

Sidney Hook

In January 1988, Hook wrote an open letter to the Stanford faculty, a heavy-caliber salvo in what ended up being his last great polemical battle.[1]  Hook began that letter by noting two “distinctive” aspects of the manner in which the Western Culture debate had unfolded at Stanford. First, he charged that the discussion was characterized by “the almost complete absence of reference to a considerable literature by highly qualified scholars on the genuine problems” of designing and teaching a Western Civilization or World History course.[2]  (Within that “considerable literature” Hook highlighted some of his own work.)  But Hook devoted more attention to a second “distinctive thing about the discussion at Stanford”:  the manner in which the conversation had been taking place.  Hook faulted the student protesters for their “deplorable level of discourse and the denunciatory tones of abuse.”[3]These were a “violation of the courtesies of civilized discourse” that had led to a “degradation of the intellectual level of the discussions.”  Those charging that the Western Culture curriculum was racist were “ignorant detractors” beholden to a “primitive and mistaken” epistemology.[4]  Thus, Hook’s letter played upon a racist stereotype contrasting (European/Enlightenment) “civilization” with (Black) “primitivism” or “savagery.”[5]

Hook’s disquisition on the themes of civilized advocates of Western Culture versus barbaric detractors was intertwined with a discussion of the meaning of the term “elite.” He singled out the (unattributed) charge of course critics that “the content and standards of Western culture were restricted to ‘elite members of Western society.’ But under the social conditions of the past,” Hook wrote, “who else but the elite could be the creators of culture?  History has winnowed out the elite contributions of the elite.”[6]  History, hypostatized, had handed down the best from the best.

Such a narrative framing, certainly characteristic of “the West” and its mutually constitutive modernity, rendered the purported “great tradition” not a living conversation but a fixed and brittle thing.  Any desire to alter a syllabus or a reading list or a course to better reflect or respond to current questions from current students was viewed as an inevitable falling away from a cultural and intellectual height already attained.

The irony, of course, is that syllabus in question, the syllabus under critique, was not by any means representative of a long tradition at Stanford or anywhere else.  The Western Culture program was created in 1980.  Its precursor, the Western Civilization program, was a history survey that relied mostly on secondary sources.  That program’s antecedent, the Problems in Civilization course sequence, was neither a literary nor a historical but rather a sociological survey of (then) current issues facing the young citizen-student in the 1920s.

The very existence of a common general education course at Stanford, never mind the content of that course, had been a matter of constant churn and change throughout the 20thcentury.  Changes to the format of such courses, changes to the department or departments in which it they were housed – these were, or should have been, constant reminders that a teleological view of the curriculum was a blinkered one.  Nor Stanford nor any other university has ever managed to convey nothing but “the best that has been thought and said,” even if that has ever been their aim.  Most university curricula, growing out of the needs of the faculty as much as the needs of the students, amount to “the best we can do for now.”

At Stanford, that was good enough for some, while others knew that the university could do better. That latter conviction – we can do better than this – outraged the sensibilities of Sidney Hook and Saul Bellow and all their fellow gatekeepers of what counted as “culture.”  Their epigones are still caterwauling about it – which is why my project on the canon wars is unfortunately not an antiquarian inquiry.  Alas, that world is too much with us still.


[1]Sidney Hook, “Absence of core list of texts ‘fatal’ to worthwhile course,” Campus Report, Jan. 20, 1988, 12-13, 17 (microfilm).

[2]Hook 12.

[3]Hook 12.

[4]Hook 12, 13.

[5]On the long history of this trope, see George M. Fredrickson, The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817-1914(New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1971), 53-56.

[6]Hook 13.

5 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. If I had the time and money while researching my own book, I would’ve sought oral histories with Stanford’s Black Student Union students who were most out front in resisting canon/great books defenders, like Hook, Bennett, etc. I would love to hear the students’ thoughts, today, on what happened then. But perhaps their recent reflections are already out there, somewhere? Anyway, thanks for this. I appreciate you pointing out the rhetorical parallels regarding civilization/savagery. – TL

  2. There are probably some recent retrospectives out there — I think the reunion for the class of ’87 or the class of ’88 featured a retrospective roundtable. I think those accounts would be worth collating in one place — I could totally see an edited collection, as part of a larger retrospective on campus culture wars of the 80s and 90s. However, I’m trying to stay away from “memory” in this project, in order to foreground what we can learn from the discourse of the time. Hook’s polemic was certainly representative of one strand of argument, and fit in with the various hysterical accounts (all published at least one year after the event in question) regarding the students marching with Jesse Jackson and chanting “Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho, Western Culture’s got to go!” (Contrary to some assertions, Jackson did not join this chant.) But there was much unabashed talk about “barbarians at the gates,” and that attitude is still visible in today’s second-order culture warriors’ writing.

    These paragraphs on Hook are lifted right out of my manuscript, though that’s not the chapter I am finishing up this weekend. And — mirabile dictu — I am actually finishing up a chapter. The ratio between back-burner simmer time to front-burner rolling boil time in my writing is something I still haven’t gotten the hang of. But now I’m cooking with gas, as the Brits say, which is a nice change.

  3. Without having read the Hook letter in its entirety, I’d tentatively suggest he might not have been so much making an Arnoldian “best that’s been thought and said” argument as observing that the “culture” of the past has been mostly created by those with a certain amount of leisure and resources, hence “the elite” in that sense. As an empirical claim this is open to question (Shakespeare was not from the upper classes, and the list could go on), but that might have been part of what Hook meant. Anyway he did not help his case by using the language of “civilized” and “primitive,” whether it was self-consciously racist or not. And the reference to history winnowing out the elite of the elite does suggest an Arnoldian sort of process at least at the second stage, so to speak.

  4. Great post, LD. It’s always a pleasure for me to roam a little down a different path here, and one thing I like best about the blog is the diversity of topics at play in any given week.

    But! This line really struck me: “But the chronological sweep of the program, the historic arrangement of the readings, and the geographic shift northward and westward, from the ancient Mediterranean to modern Europe (but not, interestingly, the United States) lent itself to a sense of the progress of thought – or, perhaps, the Progress of Thought, as if “the great tradition” were a pageant proceeding from sunrise to sunset, from the “infancy” of humankind to its (presumed) maturity in the modern era.”

    So I have to ask: What were Stanford students learning of American history at the same time? How did the rise of other fields (i.e. Native Studies) shape where on campus certain parts of “civilization” were taught?

  5. Sarah, that’s a good question. Stanford students were required to take two quarters of U.S. history (both halves of the survey), but you could AP out that requirement with a 5 on the AP test, which I did and I suppose many other students must have done as well. So one of the big arguments for changing the course was actually coming from the history department, particularly from the Americanists, and chief among them Carl Degler. He didn’t want to abandon the notion of a reading list, and he opposed the rationale behind some of the arguments for “diversifying” the list, but he certainly supported a more robust attention to the development of American culture / civilization. Degler would have been very happy to see a one-year course requirement that ended in Spring Quarter with a focus on American history/culture. (Another effect of such a change would have been to bring the requirement back under the purview of the history department, rather than dispersing the responsibility for it among several departments.)

    I suppose if Degler’s idea had been taken up, Stanford might have done away with the US history requirement or considered it fulfilled through the Civ class — but I believe that US history requirement was a state-mandated req for any institution receiving Cal Grant funds. (Cal Grants = state-funded scholarships for students attending in-state, at public or private universities.)

    Among the faculty, the biggest advocates for changing the requirement were those involved in African American Studies, women’s studies to some degree, Latin American studies, and — interestingly — anthropology. A large contingent of the profs who went on record opposing the change hailed from the English department. So there was some internecine warfare between departments within the humanities. (In that situation at Stanford, the winner is always gonna be the school of engineering.)

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