On the Sacrality of Reading Lists:
The Western Culture Debate at Stanford University

By Herbert Lindenberger
Department of English
Stanford University


Excerpted from The History in Literature: On Value, Genre, Institutions by Herbert Lindenberger. Copyright 1990 by Columbia University Press. Used with permission of Columbia University Press.


During the first few months of 1988 the university at which I teach, then in the midst of its centennial celebration, found itself continuously in the national and sometimes even international news. This attention from the media did not, as one might think, derive from recent discoveries in Stanford's science laboratories or even from the record contributions made to the centennial's fund-raising campaign. Rather, the events deemed most newsworthy at Stanford were the deliberations taking place within the Academic Senate as to whether or not to retain a list of fifteen works that, for the preceding eight years, had been required reading in the course in Western culture taken by all under~graduates during their first year.

The list that attracted this attention reads as follows:

In addition to these required texts, a list of categories including such works as the Aeneid, selections from Thomas Aquinas, Hobbes's Leviathan, Goethe's Faust and Werther, and a nineteenth-century novel (the last-named to be chosen by the instructor) was "strongly recommended."

The reaction to the proposed dropping of the fifteen required texts (referred to at Stanford as the "core list") was marked by a degree of media sensationalism uncommon for an event centered around figures such as Plato and St. Augustine. A full-page report on Stanford's deliberations in Newsweek was headlined "Say Goodnight Socrates: Stanford University and the decline of the West," and it was accompanied by a color reproduction of David's Death of Socrates. The local morning newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, rarely known for its intellectual concerns, reported the Senate's ultimate abandonment of the core list with the headline "Stanford Puts an End to Western Civilization." A somewhat hysterical opinion column in Turin's La Stampa bore the headline "I Classici banditi [The Classics Banished]" while a much more sober follow-up article by another writer two months later was headed "Alla ricerca di un Dante nero [In Search of a Black Dante]" (Cavalli-Sforza). [Note: Professor Cavalli-Sforza has informed me he was not responsible for the headline.] In addition, one might note that the executive branch of the United States government entered the controversy in the person of then Secretary of Education William Bennett, who, in various public speeches, berated Stanford for even considering giving up its reading list of established classics. Once the list had been dropped, Bennett debated Stanford's president, Donald Kennedy, in a nationally shown news telecast.

How can one account for all this excitement surrounding a change in a required course? Certainly the immediate motivation for the public's keen interest in what might otherwise have remained a local issue was the nationwide discussion of university curricular issues set off by the publication some months earlier of two best-sellers by humanistic scholars, Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind and E.D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy, the latter of which bore the prescriptive subtitle What Every American Needs to Know. Each of these books, though in differing ways, argued for the retention of what it claimed to be traditional cultural values, and each as well decried what it saw as a shift toward relativism and contempt for the past. For those like Secretary Bennett, who made no secret of his admiration for these books, Stanford University's abandonment of its reading list offered living proof that the changes dreaded by Hirsch and Bloom were being implemented at one of the country's most prestigious educational institutions.

Beyond this immediate cause, the public's interest in Stanford's discussion was doubtless motivated as well by the conservative turn that marked American political culture during the 1980s. Thus, the rejection of a reading list of established classical texts from literature, philosophy, science, and political theory could be interpreted -- indeed, was interpreted -- as a sign that the ethnical minorities and feminists who had achieved political consciousness since the 1960s had not merely succeeded in taking over the universities, but that their influence on the curriculum threatened the cultural values articulated by Hirsch and Bloom and also the social stability that some felt had been achieved during the past decade.

The larger political implications that people read into Stanford's debate derived from the fact that the move to change the course began with a complaint from the Stanford Black Student Union, which, in testimony before the Senate's committee on undergraduate studies, called the course "racist" and claimed that the core list failed to reflect the needs of the many black students who had been recruited to Stanford during recent years. This complaint was voiced during the spring of 1986, a year before the publication of Bloom's and Hirsch's books. The union noted that the core list included no works by black writers -- though sometimes a single text such as Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth or Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man would appear on an individual syllabus. The union's charge was quickly followed by complaints from groups representing Hispanic students and feminists, both of whom claimed that the course was biased against their particular interests. The peculiar tone of these complaints can be heard in the following statements by Bill King, then president of the Black Student Union, in testimony before the Academic Senate two years after the initial charge:

What, one might ask at this point, was the disputed core list actually supposed to represent? What precisely was its legitimacy? How was this particular list and not some other list of Western classics chosen for the required course in the first place? What rationale has governed this course and similar courses at other institutions? How was it that books long held sacrosanct (however controversial many of them were when first read) could now be accused of "crushing the psyche" and "hurting people mentally and emotionally"?

To answer these questions and thus to provide some historical context for Stanford's much-publicized debate, one needs to sketch out the history of these courses. For one thing, courses of this type are unique to the Unite States, in which an undergraduate college education is not, as in most other countries, devoted to mastering one or two disciplines, but is designed to provide what is generally called a "liberal arts" background. Thus, besides their concentrated study of a single field, American students ordinarily take a number of introductory courses in a number of fields, some of these being chosen from a large slate, others, like Stanford's Western Culture, being required of all students. Foreign professors who visit American universities often express amazement at the introductory nature of these courses, which they sometimes even characterize as "superficial" -- to which the host usually replies by speculating that in other lands students surely receive this necessary background in secondary school.

The direct ancestor of Stanford's Western Culture is a course in the origins of Western civilization that Columbia University instituted in 1919. This course, which, unlike Stanford's one-year course, has been spread over two years since 1929, was followed by an equally influential course begun in 1931 under Robert Hutchins' presidency at the University of Chicago. Both these courses treated European civilization as a unity and had little, if anything, to say about non-European cultures. Both of them also came to stress the reading of major texts rather than modern commentaries on these texts. One can, in fact, speak of two types of courses that, in the course of time, became fused into the characteristic Western Civilization course of the mid-twentieth century: first, what was essentially a history course, taught by historians, as in Columbia's original Contemporary Civilization and, second, a "Great Books" course developed for Columbia honors students and later providing the central idea for general education at Chicago. Although literary and philosophical texts predominated in Western Civilization courses as they added original sources, documents from the history of science, and sometimes also examples from art and music, were soon introduced.

A number of variants of these courses had spread across the United States by mid-century. Stanford initiated its first such course in 1935 under the title Western Civilization. Administered by the department of history (an arrangement used in many other universities), this required first-year course utilized materials developed at Columbia, including, for some years, a source book prepared by the Columbia staff for its own students. In view of the recent controversy over the core list, it is significant that Stanford's earlier course did not even have a stipulated reading list, but simply relied upon the large number of texts (several times more than the core list of fifteen, though often only snippets of famous works) included in the Columbia anthology. By stressing texts rather than commentary, these courses attempted to make students feel that they were directly experiencing the sources of what they were meant to call their own civilization.

With our present historical hindsight, we can discern certain ideas and motives from an earlier time guiding these courses. It seems of no small interest, for example, to find that Columbia's course derives directly from a special course created in 1918, a year before its founding, to educate recently conscripted American soldiers about to fight in France. This course, called the War Issues course and offered at the time in a number of universities besides Columbia, sought to introduce Americans to the European heritage in whose defense they were soon to risk their lives. As they assumed their new leadership role in world politics, Americans could come to see themselves as the heirs to a culture going back to its supposed dual fountainheads in ancient Israel and Greece.

But the courses that burgeoned during the 1920s and '30s responded to other concerns as well. Many educators believed -- often with what can best be described as a kind of spiritual mission -- that if students could read the very words uttered by the great men of the West (albeit usually in translation), they would be better able to cope with the cultural crisis that the most advanced thinkers of the time took to be a fact of contemporary life. How can we make contact with our intellectual past during a period in which technological and social changes were working to obliterate this past? How could the children of America's newly emerging middle class, many of immigrant (or, more precisely, European immigrant) background, be made familiar with the writings that their teachers deemed to be the materials binding our culture together? The sense of crisis that permeated these courses, especially in their early days, can be linked with a particular mood that pervaded Europe and America in the wake of the First World War and that manifested itself in such otherwise diverse writings as Spengler's Decline of the West and Eliot's The Waste Land. It seems significant, for example, that Eliot composed his poem during the early years of Columbia's course. Like this course in its later form, Eliot's poem was made up of snippets of quotations ranging in time from the Bible and the Greeks down to modernist writers, in Eliot's case Baudelaire and Hermann Hesse. And like the teachers of these courses, Eliot used these quotations to establish an immediacy of contact between the modern reader and a swiftly vanishing cultural past; the fact that Eliot, unlike these teachers, presented the quotations in their original languages worked to increase the experience of immediacy.

Yet the pessimistic mood that helped motivate these courses and writings of the early twentieth century cannot simply be attributed to the aftermath of the war. One finds this mood as well in much late nineteenth-century thought, above all in the criticism of Matthew Arnold, whose faith in the healing and uplifting power inherent in the greatest poets since Homer helped fuel the sense of mission of those who developed and taught these courses during the succeeding century. It hardly seems accidental that one of the key teachers of the Columbia course for many years was Lionel Trilling, Arnold's disciple and intellectual biographer, whose own writings can be viewed as extensions at once of Arnold's concerns and of the concerns guiding the course itself.

Stanford's Western Civilization course lasted until the campus disturbances of the late 1960s when, like many liberal-arts requirements at Stanford and at other American universities, it fell victim to sentiments voiced by students and faculty members alike that students should feel free to choose their own courses. Yet despite the fact that it had declined in quality during its final years, the course still evokes considerable nostalgia from Stanford alumni, who often cite it as a high point in their educational experience. By the mid-1970s many Stanford faculty members recognized that the courses students chose outside their major disciplines all too often failed to achieve any coherence as a group, and, as a result, the Academic Senate gradually instituted a new set of liberal-arts requirements. One of these new requirements was Western Culture, with the second word intended to distinguish it from the old course, though the repetition of "Western" signaled a continuing commitment to the European intellectual tradition.

In one respect, however, Western Culture differed strikingly from Western Civilization. Instead of being a single course administered by one department, it was designed as a group of related courses with significantly different emphases. Moreover, departments and programs were invited to submit course proposals stressing the concerns of their particular disciplines. Soon after the requirement was instituted in 1980, it boasted some half dozen "tracks" from which incoming Stanford undergraduates selected a single one according to their interests at that point in their development. Thus, the departments of history and philosophy created tracks built around their traditional subject matter. Comparative literature, which I headed at the time, developed an achronological, thematically organized track that adapted perspectives from recent critical theory to create confrontations of intertextually related readings: Dante's Inferno, for example, confronted Aristotle's Ethics in one direction and Eliot's The Waste Land in the other, with love poems by Catullus, Petrarch, St. John of the Cross, Goethe, and Baudelaire (all presented bilingually) jostling against one another. The track sponsored by the program in Values, Technology, Science, and Society -- a track that has proved especially popular with students in engineering and the hard sciences -- offered texts stressing the role of technology and science in the history of our culture; since the contributions of Chinese and Arabs could not be ignored in this track, the latter was never quite as Western-oriented as the other tracks.

The required list of fifteen texts with which this essay began was created on pragmatic grounds to respond to the diversity of tracks that marked the new course. Since each track came from an area with its own intellectual agenda, a list of texts to be read in all tracks was necessary, it was agreed, to assure what was at the time termed a "common experience" for all Stanford students. Doubtless the distant memory of the once-successful single-track Western Civilization helped motivate this desire for some commonality of reading. Moreover, it was hoped (in vain, some later admitted), that stuents from diverse tracks would discuss and argue about the Republic, the Inferno, and other works from the core list at breakfast or late at night in their dormitory rooms. Those who selected the list claim that it was never intended to serve as a canon and that it certainly did not have for them the sacred aura that its later opponents accused them of attaching to it. Indeed, they readily admit that any number of other texts (including those from the "strongly recommended" list) might just as easily have made it to the core list. Above all, this list was kept deliberately short in order to leave ample room for each track to add texts suitable to the orientation of its own discipline.

Soon after it was instituted, Western Culture looked in every way like an extraordinarily successful course. Student evaluations, though varying somewhat from track to track, remained exceptionally high for a required course. Those teaching in the course were, for the most part, enthusiastic about their work. But problems emerged here and there even before the criticisms of the Black Student Union. Nearly all tracks, it turned out, were somewhat cavalier in their commitment to the core list, if only because it was difficult to build a coherent narrative at once around the list and around the interests of a particular discipline: the philosophy track, for example, found it could accommodate St. Augustine into its narrative more satisfactorily with The City of God than with the stipulated Confessions, while the Values, Technology, Science and Society track never knew quite how to fit St. Augustine in at all. Some faculty members, especially younger ones, refused altogether to teach in the course. For example, social scientists in non-Western area studies felt alienated by the course's exclusively Western orientation. Feminist and minority faculty complained from the beginning that the core list did not leave them enough space to pursue their particular agendas. To be sure, most tracks, in the course of the 1980s, had already evolved somewhat in directions responding to the criticisms later leveled against the course as a whole. Readings by women writers such as Sappho and Christine de Pisan made their way into most tracks. Students in a few tracks were reminded of the Arab influence on medieval philosophy in the West. The slave narratives of Equiano and Frederick Douglass came to share students' bookshelf space with Candide and Civilization and Its Discontents. Yet the course's ground-rules, including the core list, remained in place, and critics sometimes described the changes taking place in the various tracks as tokenism.

The two-year debate that began with the Black Student Union's complaints resulted, as so often within contemporary academic culture, in a compromise. After a year and a half of deliberations by a task force appointed by Stanford's provost and then after several months of debate in the Academic Senate, the latter body authorized a new course entitled Cultures, Ideas, Values. The succession of nouns making up the title was selected so that the course could be known by its initials, C.I.V., which evokes the old Western Civilization (traditionally called Western Civ), while omitting only the now-controversial adjective.

Yet this new course could also be viewed as a further evolution of the Western Culture course. Most of the older tracks remain in place, though with certain mandatory changes. Since the core list, despite the original intent (or lack of intent) that its selectors claimed, had come to be viewed by some as a sacred canon (at least the course's opponents believed that some took it to be sacred), no single reading list would henceforth be required. Instead, the perceived need for some common experience among students in all tracks will now be met by an annually selected list of several texts, authors, or issues. In order that no trace of sacrality could attach itself to this list, these texts, authors, or issues would be chosen by the teaching staff assigned to the course for a particular year. The first year's list (used in 1988-89) consisted of the Bible, Plato, St. Augustine, Machiavelli, Rousseau, and Marx; one might note that by naming mainly authors that year (the Bible was named by title because of the awkwardness in citing its authorship), tracks could choose those aspects of the author's work that best fit their disciplinary and narrative needs. The staff for the following year (1989-90) named only two authors, Marx and Freud, plus the Bible, and otherwise stipulated simply categories to insure an appropriate coverage of genre and historical period: thus, they called for "a classical Greek philosopher" (nobody disputes that this will mean Plato or Aristotle, perhaps even both); "an early Christian thinker" (St. Augustine, obviously, for most tracks, but St. Benedict, with his time-schedules and his architectural schemes, for Values, Technology, Science, and Society); "a Renaissance dramatist" (whom nobody imagines will be anybody but Shakespeare); "an Enlightenment thinker" (which would allow a track to weight its narrative in a direction suggested either by Voltaire or Rousseau). The refusal to name the last four authors can be taken as part of the whole desacralizing process that the proponents of the new course sought to initiate from the start: by naming only categories (except of course for the Bible, Marx and Freud), the staff signals its disdain for the casting of an author into the role of what, in [another] essay, I called the foundation stone of a particular culture.

In addition to designating these common categories, the new C.I.V. is required to operate according to certain guidelines that respond to the main criticisms of the earlier course. Each track must "include the study of works by women, minorities, and persons of color," and it must study "at least one of the non-European cultures that have become components of our diverse American society." One might note that the latter guideline can presumably be met through, say, the inclusion of the Bhagavad-Gita, some classical Chinese poems, or a Latin American novel. Indeed, the attempt to approach foreign cultures that have left their impact upon modern America is not altogether different from the attempt by the War Issues course to stress America's European heritage -- except that now the turn is away from the West to the non-West. If the old course could be accused of ethnocentrism, so of course can the new, though one might call it an ethnocentrism of the left rather than of the right. Moreover, it remains to be seen to what degree the choice of new texts for the course will reflect the make-up of the university's minority population, which, at the time the course was instituted, was approaching forty percent of the undergraduate student body. Will these texts be allocated by some form of proportional representation according to the particular minorities making up the student body? If so, the relative paucity of East Indian students would leave little if any room for the Hindu scriptures. Since the legislation speaks of "cultures that have become components of our diverse American society," does it mandate or encourage texts representing an ethnic group such as the Vietnamese, which, though fast increasing its numbers within the larger population, has not yet sent many students to Stanford? And what would determine the choice of texts from the already well-represented minorities? Will Chinese-American students consider the poetry of the T'ang dynasty as an essential part of their heritage, or will they insist on depictions of the so-called Chinese- American experience as portrayed, say, in the writings of Maxine Hong Kingston? And what about a group such as Japanese-Americans, who have not yet produced a figure with the stature of a Kingston? Does Stanford's now considerable Jewish population, which was quite small throughout the tenure of the old Western Civilization course, count as a minority, and will Jewish students express desires analogous to those voiced before the Academic Senate by Bill King? If so, would the Old Testament, Marx, and Freud provide sufficient representation, or would they demand one of the countless novels of the last half century about Jewish life in America? (The statistics issued on the minority population at Stanford do not include Jews.) Finally, one must ask what precisely determines that which is "non-Western." If the concept of an autonomous "Western" culture has become controversial, then so must its non-Western opposite. To what extent are we making the culture of the underprivileged in America synonymous with non-Western? Like most legislation born of controversy, Stanford's leaves these questions discretely open -- with the appropriate accommodations to be made as the course's various tracks (as well as changing student and faculty concerns) develop.

In addition, during each of the course's three terms, at least one text, regardless of its author's personal background, is to be used "explicitly . . . to give substantial attention to the issues of race, gender, and class." Thus, Greek slavery could presumably enter a discussion of Aristotle's Ethics or Politics, and later forms of slavery could be explored by way of Caliban's role in The Tempest (both in Shakespeare and in Aime Cesaire's reworking of the play); gender could be central to analyses of such texts by male writers as the Antigone and Madame Bovary. Even if the texts are familiar, the interpretations are new -- indeed, very much in keeping with the methods of research most actively being pursued in the humanities today. And, as I argued in [another] essay, major changes in the interpretation of canonical texts are themselves a way of effecting canon change by what I called "other means."

Although C.I.V. is empowered to stress texts from the past "six to eight centuries," all tracks are required to "include treatment of ancient and medieval cultures." Note the plural in the last word, which would allow Islamic or ancient Chinese texts to play key roles in some future track. Despite the encouragement the new policy gives to the adoption of non-Western materials, the course will undoubtedly continue to stress the European texts that dominated its predecessor, if only because most available faculty were themselves trained solely within the so-called Western tradition. During 1988-89, however, an experimental track, directed by two Latin Americanists from different disciplines and by a black classical scholar who also specializes in Caribbean literature, was developed to concentrate on cultural conflict and interchange between Europe and the Americas; since this conflict began only five centuries ago, the ancient and medieval requirement for this track was met by introducing analogies of cultural conflict in texts such as the Medea and the Chanson de Roland. Moreover, by taking an achronological approach like the earlier comparative literature track, it sought to confront long-canonical texts with others still little known, for example Augustine's Confessions with a Navaho autobiography, Son of Old Man Hat.

The extensive use of third-world texts in this new track, entitled "Europe and the Americas," prolonged the public controversy surrounding C.I.V. well beyond the resolution of the debate in the Academic Senate in March, 1988. Soon after this track began, the Wall Street Journal gained access to its syllabus, which it derided both in an editorial and in an op-ed column. The editorial, for instance, expresses what might be described as a new form of culture shock:

The Journal editorialist seeks to go for the jugular through such traditional rhetorical techniques as making fun of unfamiliar foreign names ("Ms. Menchu") and playing on a more familiar name, Marx, whose best-known referents were inspired by quite incompatible muses. Soon after this editorial appeared, Allan Bloom himself, writing from Paris, entered the fray with a letter to the Journal's editor condemning the whole new enterprise symbolized by C.I.V.:

Since the nerve that Bloom's book touched in 1987 helped to transform what might have remained a local issue into a national one, the now-celebrated author must have taken special satisfaction in administering what he took to be the coup de grace to Stanford's new course. But he may also have forgotten that the complaints he leveled against "indoctrination with ephemeral ideologies" and "surrender to the present" bear a striking similarity to the complaints to be found against his beloved Rousseau in the British press during the 1790s.

The publicity surrounding Stanford's debate obviously stressed the issue's political dimension, with the more extreme statements accusing the University (or, more precisely, its representative body, the Senate) of caving in to the demands of a small but highly vocal constituency. For those who experienced the debate on the spot the political lines were never quite as clearly defined as many in the media may have thought. For example, a number of left-leaning faculty members, especially some based in history and in the various literature departments, supported the retention of the old core list, while several members of the Classics Department, which presumably had most to lose under the C.I.V. guidelines, supported the new course. Faculty sentiments could more generally be correlated with their methodological commitments within their respective fields than with their voting behavior outside the university.

Yet it would be dishonest to deny a political dimension to the dispute. I prefer to put it another way: attempts to modify or replace canons are always in some sense political, though what we label "political" can itself not easily be separated from what we call "cultural." When these terms are kept apart, the first becomes loaded with negative meanings -- Machiavellian machinations, the intimidation exercised by defiant crowds, corruption in the back room. "Cultural," by contrast, suggests generally positive things -- folkloristic costumes and dances, the strivings of lowly groups to achieve their own identity, a cultivation of spiritual rather than material goals. Yet how can these terms be treated separately if we seek to understand the formation and function of literary canons? The conservative and nationalistic policies that guided the creation of the German canon, as I described it in [another] essay, represented at once a political and a cultural program, though, from our present point of view, we are likely to stress the political side of this program, if only because we think we see the nationalist bias in the canon culminating in the ideology of Nazism. Similarly, it has been fashionable in recent years to view the development of English studies during the late nineteenth century as a means of social control over a potentially rebellious mass. From a contemporary liberal or radical point of view we are likely to read this development as predominantly political -- even a bit sinister -- in its motives. Yet a recent study of the institution of the first English-literature professorship in England during the late 1820s portrays a more benign program, namely, the attempt of utilitarian reformers to promote useful reading habits and general cultural advancement among the newly literate masses through exposure to the best writing in their native tongue. By the same token, the institution of the new C.I.V. course must look like a political conspiracy to those who oppose it, while to those more positively inclined, it may well seem like the affirmation of a sense of community among peoples who had been culturally disenfranchised. If one insists on separating the political from the cultural, one is likely to gain at best a partial view of the picture. A study of the major canon changes of the past would reveal a complex of factors that range considerably beyond either one of those categories I have described as political or cultural. The development of the French classical system during the seventeenth century encompasses such diverse though closely related phenomena as the consolidation of absolute monarchy, the taming of the old nobility, and the cultivation of new values such as honnete and bienseance that straddle the ethical and the aesthetic realms. The German shift in taste from French to English literary models during the late eighteenth century is at once an expression of a new bourgeois class consciousness and a revolt against French cultural hegemony. The development of separate national literary canons in the course of the nineteenth century can scarcely be separated from the attempts of every European state to instill national consciousness within its people -- and of some of these states to pursue imperial ambitions. The institution of Western civilization courses in America in the wake of the First World War responded not only to the European sense of cultural crisis, but, coming as it did precisely at the time that the United States first felt itself a world power, served to portray this power as heir to that whole tradition we came to call Western. Stanford's recent move toward a more globally oriented course recognizes at once the increasingly heterogeneous make-up of the country's college- student population and America's entanglement in a world economy over which it can no longer exercise the control it once enjoyed. Might one speculate that the new course also articulates the waning of America's earlier power?