by Ian Morris
March 30,2016

There is a saying, regularly but probably wrongly attributed to Henry Kissinger, that academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small. Political scientist Dwight Waldo summed things up much better when he observed in 1970 that academics “can no longer use our little joke that campus politics are so nasty because the stakes are so small. They are now so nasty because the stakes are so large.”

Rarely is this truer than when the stakes concern history, as my own institution—Stanford University—is currently rediscovering.

The story goes back to 1987, when Rev. Jesse Jackson came to campus to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. Stanford was hardly a hotbed of student radicalism, but Jackson’s arrival proved a catalyst for discontent. Some 500 undergraduates, angry at being required to take a freshman course on Western Culture that focused on the writings of white men from Plato and the Bible to More and Marx, joined him in chants of “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Culture’s got to go!”

Feelings ran high. Some students accused the Western Culture course of “European-Western and male bias” and “sexist and racist stereotypes.” A former president of the Black Student Union even told The Stanford Daily (the university’s main undergraduate newspaper) that Western Culture’s message was “nigger go home.”

Within a year of Jackson’s visit, the Faculty Senate had voted Western Culture out of existence and ordered the creation of a successor, known as Cultures, Institutions and Values, that would focus more on “works by women, minorities and persons of color.” When this class proved insufficiently radical for student and faculty tastes, it too was closed down.

The politics had been nasty, but at the beginning the stakes—hurt feelings, adolescent anger, extra committee meetings—had seemed small. However, a storm of publicity soon dispelled that illusion. William J. Bennett, the Secretary of Education, told The New York Times that the debate revealed how “a lot of academic leadership is readily intimidated by the noisiest of its students and faculty.” Newsweek ran a full-page feature titled “Say Goodnight, Socrates,” while the San Francisco Chronicle announced “Stanford Puts an End to Western Civilization.” The stakes were large indeed.

The publicity storm, however, gave Stanford both too much and too little credit, because the university’s experience of the decline and fall of Western Civilization was in fact fairly typical of what was going on elsewhere in America.

Historians generally trace classes like Western Culture back to the late 1910s, when American college administrators identified a need for courses that would tell veterans returning from World War I what they had been fighting for and what kind of society they should strive to create. The most expensive private institutions led the way, with Columbia University’s course on War and Peace Issues (later renamed Contemporary Civilization) beginning in 1919, the University of Chicago’s Great Books program in 1931, and Stanford’s first Western Civilization class in 1935. By the mid-20th century, hundreds of American colleges had followed their lead, instituting what student wisdom astutely labeled “Plato to NATO” sequences, and almost every high school in the nation taught simpler versions of them.

The pendulum began swinging back during the 1960s, when increasing numbers of students and academics began blaming racism, sexism and imperialism on Western Civilization. At Stanford, Western Culture was not taught at all between 1969 and 1980. By the time I took up my own first academic appointment in 1987 at the University of Chicago, even that august institution had stopped requiring all undergraduates to take the History of Western Civilization. I taught in the sequence every year I was at Chicago and still count it among my best academic experiences, but many of my colleagues shared the doubts that were becoming dominant at Stanford. By the time the Chicago program finally closed its doors in 2003, Western Civilization was being put out of business all across America.

The Latest Round of Campus Politics

The rest, it appeared, would be history—until February, when some students at Stanford began advocating for the return of compulsory classes on Western Civilization. Leading the charge is The Stanford Review, a newspaper co-founded in 1987 by student libertarians Norman Book and Peter Thiel (the latter of whom went on to co-found PayPal) as a direct response to Jackson’s visit to Stanford.

“Stanford University … fails its students,” The Stanford Review claimed, because “Stanford does not require a humanities course that contextualizes our society… Therefore, The Stanford Review is petitioning to place an initiative on the undergraduate spring ballot urging the Faculty Senate to instate a two-quarter Western Civilization requirement.” The petition quickly reached the 350-signature threshold required to get onto the ballot, and now that its proposers have overcome an attempt to block it on technicalities, the entire student body will vote in April on whether to send it forward to the Faculty Senate.

As in the 1980s, feelings are running high. One student wrote in The Stanford Daily that “A Western Civilization requirement would necessitate that our education be centered around upholding white supremacy, capitalism and colonialism, and all the other oppressive systems that flow from Western civilizations.” The editor of The Stanford Review, however, insisted that those who promote Western Civilization are the real victims. “I’ve been called racist, I’ve been called a joke, I’ve been told to put Western Civilization up my ass,” he explained, while “Commenters on Facebook… have asked if we will ‘be reading Mein Kampf.‘” So far, the debate has stirred up less publicity than that of the 1980s, but conservative commentator Glenn Beck has already weighed in.

Given Stanford students’ apparent antipathy to requirements of any kind and the generally left-leaning politics of most of the university community, the measure seems unlikely to pass. But even so, it shows not only that cultural conflicts are taking new forms, but also why the stakes in campus politics are so high. Academics’ arguments over history do not just respond to larger cultural trends; they also help to create those larger trends, giving society the kinds of educated elites it needs.

This has always been the case. For most of the 5,000 or so years since writing was invented, literate civilizations have supported small castes of historians who, everywhere from Rome to China, performed rather similar functions. Each group identified a particular moment in its society’s past and pronounced it exemplary, arguing that contemporary rulers should struggle to live up to its standards while those lower in the social order should model their behavior on what the elites approved.

The best example is probably China, where by the first century B.C. scholars had already nominated the fifth-century B.C. sage Confucius as the paragon of virtue. Confucius’ popularity went up and down, but until well into the 20th century the texts attributed to him were at the center of elite education. In Europe matters were more complicated, with Greece and Rome providing exemplars of political and military virtue while Jesus set the moral standard, but the same basic pattern prevailed. Historians created a vision of the past that drew sharp lines between mass and elite, and they made this vision central to the education of future elites.

The first real change came in 19th-century Europe, where historians created a new vision of the past emphasizing the continuity of separate nations, united since primeval times by blood and kinship. Only men able to recognize and shape the people’s general will could be true rulers, and only by knowing their own history could ordinary folk learn what their nation-states expected of them. Modern, professionalized historical scholarship was born in these years as academics put a handful of students through advanced degrees that trained them to become the next generation of historians, sent a larger minority through colleges that turned them into a new kind of elite, and schooled the majority of the population—by 1900, regularly including girls as well as boys—in the skills needed to be useful citizens.

In the 20th century, American colleges and high schools scaled up from this kind of national vision of history to a Western one, which simultaneously explained to students why they needed to participate in an American-led Atlantic world and equipped at least some of them to take leadership roles within it. Over the past 50 years, though, this vision has been torn apart and is now being reassembled into something new.

A Global Vision of History

Because the latest transformation is still working itself out, the process seems very messy. Two main forces have been at work, although they cannot be completely separated.

We might loosely call the first force the rights revolution. As the Stanford protesters pointed out in 1987, assuming that white men are the only important agents—as historians regularly did before the 1960s—now seems absurd or even sinister. However, the protesters were mistaken in thinking that this criticism fatally wounded the Western Civilization approach. Looking at the past through the lenses of class, race or gender certainly encourages historians to break larger concepts such as “the West” down into fragments. But the authors of the 2016 Stanford Review petition are also right to observe that Western societies have led the way in the modern rights revolution, and the Western Civilization approach is perfectly compatible with identity politics.

It seems to me that a second force, which we can loosely sum up as globalization, has been even more important in bringing down the Western Civilization model. As American college populations have become less upper-middle class, less male and less white, they have found histories centered on northwest Europe less useful. Some educators responded by reducing the amount of history being taught; others, particularly in states such as Texas and California that have especially diverse student bodies, shifted instead toward a more global view of history.

The educational market responded rapidly. High schools’ demand for more teachers able to offer world history classes forced colleges to appoint more professors able to train such teachers, which in turn drove research universities to produce more graduate students able to fill these faculty positions. In the 1980s, newly appointed assistant professors in college history departments normally needed to be able to teach Western Civilization; in the 2010s, they normally need to be able to teach World History.

The history being taught in universities has responded to the broad forces shaping society, but—as always—it is also shaping these forces. American universities have begun producing a new elite, taught to see the world not from a Western, Atlantic perspective but from a global one. It is a more diverse and cosmopolitan elite than the 20th century’s, and while it is still Anglophone, its members are as likely to find their first positions in Hong Kong or Singapore as in New York or London upon leaving Stanford, Harvard or MIT.

Dwight Waldo was right to say that academic arguments get so nasty because the stakes are so large. The arguments at Stanford in 1987 and 2016 over how to teach history are not matters of counting angels on pinheads; universities are not, and have never been, ivory towers. What is at issue here is how Americans define their place in the world.


— How Americans Define Their Place in the World is republished with permission of Stratfor.