Tempers always run high in the run-up to choosing the candidates for president. Donald Trump, leading the Republicans, is accused of fascism, out to destroy hundreds of years of accumulated democratic values. Hillary Clinton, the Democrat most likely to succeed, is accused of breaching national security with a private email system of her own, rendering classified secrets open to hacking by alien governments, and could conceivably be indicted for felonies.
Thus the results of the November election could — the operative word is “could” not necessarily “would” — challenge American civilization as we know it. But how well do we know it? It’s not merely an academic question, though it’s certainly of academic importance.
An important debate on just what an educated man or woman should understand and defend as American values has opened on the campus of one the most elite universities, a reminder of what has been sacrificed to the politically correct culture. Ironically, it’s a debate ignited not by the professors but the students themselves. Next week students at Stanford University will decide whether to ask the university to restore a mandatory course, for all undergraduates, that was once commonplace on campuses everywhere.
“In recognition of the unique role Western culture has had in shaping our political, economic, and social institutions,” the student petition declares, “Stanford University should mandate that freshmen complete a two-quarter Western Civilization requirement covering the politics, history, philosophy, and culture of the Western world.”
Such courses taught how Western thinking was embodied in the principles of the American revolution, and how they eventually led to American leadership of the democracies of the world. The courses were originally organized for soldiers returning from World War I, to teach them about what they had been fighting for, and how they could continue to defend those things. Three decades later, these courses were taught to veterans returning from another war. They affectionately called them “Plato to NATO,” and learned to think about the profound issues that anchored the nation in a confusing, changing and shrinking world.
The works included the Bible, the classics of ancient Greece and Rome, the record of political, religious and secular philosophers as different as Dante, Machiavelli, Voltaire, Darwin, Marx and Freud. Their works were analyzed and debated, examined as both positive and not so good. But what started as a survey of the great books that connect us came to be perceived as divisive and alienating. In the wild decade of the 1960s many students began to take the works of “dead white men” as explanations of racism, sexism and imperialism. The culture shed its sheet anchor.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson led a protest of Stanford students in chanting, “Hey, hey, ho ho, Western culture’s got to go!” The protests not only won the argument on the Palo Alto campus, but spread destruction like Attila the Hun marching across academe. Students could soon choose from all kinds of courses to replace “Western Civ.” The diluted content of study was illustrated in one elective at Stanford called “Food Talks: The Language of Food.”
This sounds like satire, but it’s serious. The good news is that many Stanford students are pushing back, struggling to restore the fundamentals of understanding what binds us together, rather than celebrating what divides us into insular covens of rage and resentment. The Stanford manifesto calls for the study of works ranging from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” to W.E.B. Du Bois’ “Black Reconstruction in America.” Texts emphasize different values, such as free speech, due process and equality under the law. They’re meant to open honest debate over the American heritage, to demonstrate that the nation is not perfect, but exceptional enough to end slavery (even if it required a civil war to do it), liberate women, and harness science to enable universal communication. American Civilization courses were never perceived as indoctrination from the ivy tower, but opportunities to learn what English critic Matthew Arnold meant when he stressed the importance of learning “to propagate the best that is known and thought in the world.”
The implications of such a debate reaches into the politics of a presidential election year. Hillary Clinton talked last week of what to do about the latest radical Islamic terror outrage in Brussels, emphasizing the necessity of NATO, which Donald Trump wants to reduce, though she said nothing about why, as secretary of State, she like President Obama did not fully appreciate the threat of ISIS. Perhaps she should have had a Western civ course at Wellesley College a generation ago.
The Stanford debate is a window on how institutions of higher learning lost sight of what’s important to think about. Now students eager to move forward can lead them back to debate about what’s important to every American.
• Suzanne Fields is a columnist for The Washington Times and is nationally syndicated.
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