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1. WE DEMAND the hiring of at least 10 additional tenure-track ethnic studies professors and a commitment to the retention of these professors, prioritizing underrepresented groups within the ethnic studies programs….
2. WE DEMAND the development of a recurring and comprehensive identity and cultural humility training to be instated as a requirement for all faculty in all departments….
These are among a list of “demands” recently issued by the Who’s Teaching Us Coalition, a student group at Stanford University. Demand #1 would require that the new ethnic studies professors bypass normal promotion and tenure standards. Demand #2 would require all faculty, in all of Stanford’s Nobel-Prize-stuffed departments, to spend time practicing how to avoid stepping on racial and ethnic toes.
WTU also wants the Stanford speech code to include “a dedicated, responsive platform for reporting and tracking microaggressions from faculty,” with a requirement that these accusations be used in promotion and tenure decisions. It wants the next-appointed president and provost to be non-white and either female or transgender. It wants Stanford to require all students to take two courses “that address diversity as it relates to issues of power, privilege, and systems of oppression.”
The list goes on, but you get the idea. Egalitarian activists on other campuses have issued similar manifestos, especially in connection with incidents like the protests at the University of Missouri and at Yale last fall.
But the Stanford case is significant because of the circumstance. WTU issued its statement not in response to a racial incident, as at Mizzou, but to a petition for reinstating a Western Civilization requirement.
The petition came from The Stanford Review, an independent, conservative-leaning magazine, which published a lengthy case for why students should learn the Western sources of “values like free speech, due process, skepticism of authority, rationalism, and equality under the law.” The petition attracted enough signatures to be put to a straw vote by students (a straw vote only: the curriculum is set by faculty and administration). It lost six to one. The campus newspaper warned that accepting the proposal would mean centering Stanford education on “upholding white supremacy, capitalism and colonialism, and all other oppressive systems that flow from Western civilizations.” WTU was of course vehemently opposed and engaged in some obstruction.
In one sense, the opposition is hardly surprising. Many egalitarians on the left are proponents of postmodernism, multiculturalism and a race/class/gender approach to all issues, and thus have a hostile attitude toward Western Civ. In the late 1980s, Stanford was the locus of another such critique in a previous cycle of political correctness. The university had long had a Western Civ requirement, like Columbia, the University of Chicago, and many other top institutions, but it had been watered down to a sequence on Western Culture, which included readings from the Hebrew Bible and Homer to Marx and Freud. Even so, it was too much for the left. Noted intellectual historian Jesse Jackson led a cast of hundreds chanting “Hey, hey, ho, ho! Western culture's got to go.”
In that previous cycle, one of the dominant complaints was that the canon of works in courses on civilization, literature, philosophy, and other fields consisted mainly of writings by Dead White European Males. Bill King, president of the Black Student Union at the time, complained that Stanford is
denying the freshmen and women a chance to broaden their perspective to accept both Hume and Imhotep [27th century BC Egyptian vizier, sage, architect, astrologer, and chief minister to the pharaoh Djoser], Machiavelli and Al Malgili [15th century Algerian Islamic scholar and activist], Rousseau and Mary Wollstonecraft [18th century English writer, philosopher, and advocate of women’s rights]. . . . The Western culture program as it is presently structured around a core list and an outdated philosophy of the West being Greece, Europe, and Euro-America is wrong, and worse, it hurts people mentally and emotionally in ways that are not even recognized.
Ancient Egyptian and Islamic civilizations are certainly worth studying in a proper cross-cultural education, but they are not the sources of the student activists’ outlook. That outlook comes from the same category of Dead White European Males the students don’t want to study.
Many conservatives advocate courses in Western civilization as the source of Enlightenment ideas: reason, science, and progress; individualism, the pursuit of happiness, and individual rights; freedom, including free markets and free speech, limited government, and the rule of law. These were indeed the achievements of modern European and American thought. They were advances in human civilization though their value lies not in their Western origins but in their truth about the good society as such, and they have been adopted in many other cultures.
At the same time, however, the anti-modern Counter-Enlightenment that arose in the late 18th century and still dominates many disciplines opposed these themes. The European thinkers of this era are the sources of the most common student claims.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), for example, claimed that civilization had destroyed what he thought was the equality among primitive men by introducing differences in wealth, status, and achievement. Rousseau denounced “moral or political inequality, the different privileges, which some men enjoy to the prejudice of others; such as that of being more rich, more honored, more powerful or even in a position to exact obedience.” Note the premises: inequality is odious; standards are conventional, not objective; and one person’s gain is another’s loss. All of those premises animate contemporary egalitarianism. In addition, Rousseau elevated emotion over reason, dwelling on the hurtfulness of the invidious comparisons that inequality brings—a first step toward the touchy obsession with “microaggressions” on campuses today.
The primary source of campus egalitarianism, however, is Karl Marx (1818-1883). His theory of class conflict between capitalists and workers has been extended to other classes: race, sex, ethnicity, sexual preference, and sexual identity, doubtless with fragmentations yet to be devolved. But Marx’s conceptual framework is unchanged:
The asymmetry is a fixture of campus activism. The black woman at Yale who felt aggrieved by the possibility that a Halloween costume might slight her racial identity felt entitled to scream obscenities at a white male professor.
In the same vein, those who see themselves as disadvantaged because of their ethnicity complain of “cultural appropriation” when others adopt the symbols, language, dress, or other tokens of the ethnic heritage they identify with—like the Latina soccer player at Oberlin College who fumed when a white Anglo teammate used the term “futbol.” in a friendly email. But no white Yankee would even think of complaining that much of the world has “appropriated”—i.e., seen the value of and embraced—ideas and values that first arose in the West.
The postmodern movement of the late 20th century, finally, sought to undermine all objective standards of beauty, truth, and value, leaving only the differing attitudes and standards accepted by convention among fragmented classes, with language not a medium for discussion but an instrument of power—as the very terms presuppose. “Aggression” means launching an unprovoked attack; “appropriation” means taking something away from someone. Even language that is clearly rude does neither.
These strands in Western thought are the real sources of identity politics on campus. Students who want to understand, defend, and perhaps question their assumptions should be the first to sign up for Western Civ. Opposing such courses will not change the fact that they are dwelling in the night of the living DWEMs.
Roger Donway, “The Postmodern Assault on Reason.”
Bradford P. Wilson, “Looking into the (Ed School) Abyss.”
David Kelley is the founder of The Atlas Society. A professional philosopher, teacher, and best-selling author, he has been a leading proponent of Objectivism for more than 25 years.