Stanford Today Edition: May/June, 1997 Section: On Campus: Reshaping the Humanities WWW: Reshaping the Humanities
RESHAPING THE HUMANITIES
Scholars Debate Anew the Role of Cultures, Ideas and Values
By Diane Manuel
Last fall it was hailed in the Daily as Stanford's defining liberal arts experience. In winter quarter, a student columnist wrote, "To be blunt, the teaching sucked."
A number of professors also crossed verbal swords, with charges and angry denunciations slicing across the usually tranquil Main Quad.
By most counts, it has been a rough year for the program in Cultures, Ideas and Values, or CIV. The object of a Faculty Senate mandated review, CIV appears destined for considerable reshaping at the end of spring quarter and a new, no-nonsense name Introduction to the Humanities. But even as the rhetoric revs up, it is clear that a required, year-long program in cultural literacy and humanistic inquiry whatever form it takes is here to stay.
The CIV saga dates from the post-World War I decades, as America sought to secure a link across the Atlantic with European history and culture. History of Western Civilization was mounted by the history department in 1935, and for the next 34 years undergraduates studied the development of European thought from classical origins to modern times.
In the politically turbulent late 1960s and '70s, however, History of Western Civilization was abandoned while faculty conducted a searching Study of Education at Stanford. The result was a new program called Western Culture. Piloted for two years and introduced in 1980, it was seen by many as Stanford's response to the back-to-basics movement. Built on 15 required books and 18 strongly recommended texts, it included a collection of masterpieces of literature and philosophy. The "core list" of titles, which had to be available in English and in paperback, were widely acknowledged as monuments of Western thought.
But some of the younger faculty who arrived at Stanford in the 1980s felt excluded from Western Culture. The core list not only was long and detailed, but many thought it also failed to reflect new directions in scholarship and evolving definitions of what constitutes culture. Ten years passed with no changes no added titles by women or minority writers, for example. Some faculty likened the Western Culture syllabus to a straitjacket. Critics said the list had become male-dominated and Eurocentric.
As a response to the pressure, faculty teaching Western Culture began to shift the pedagogical focus from a common list of books to a common quest for understanding. Proponents of a new program argued that Stanford needed to graduate leaders for an increasingly non-white, non-European and non-Christian world.
As the debate simmered decorously in the Faculty Senate and boiled over in dorm lounges, the national media watched with barely disguised glee. Stanford made headlines in the Washington Post, New York Times and Los Angeles Times. Newsweek magazine chirped, "Say Goodnight, Socrates."
Conservative critic Allan Bloom had hit a sensitive national nerve with The Closing of the American Mind in 1987, and the following year U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett began to pepper his speeches with the charge that Stanford had plans to "drop the West" although he acknowledged he had not talked with any faculty members.
When the battle smoke finally lifted and the program in Cultures, Ideas and Values was approved by the Faculty Senate in 1988, it was welcomed as an armistice to end the academic culture wars. Stanford began to break new multidisciplinary ground, drawing on emerging scholarship in gender, race and ethnic studies. Most significantly, minority voices were brought into classroom conversations and works from outside the traditional Western canon were added to the reading lists.
Six years later, however, a new faculty commission appointed by a new president recommended a revamping of CIV. The nine year-long CIV courses, or tracks, had drawn criticism from students who cited uneven workloads and unclear themes, and the Commission on Undergraduate Education (CUE) recommended that CIV be overhauled.
But the Faculty Senate rejected the CUE recommendation and appointed a faculty review committee to take a fresh look at CIV. As committee members struggled over the past two years to shape yet another model for a required freshman course in the humanities, their promise to build on the "manifest successes and excellence in the current program" attracted ardent supporters. They also drew vocal critics, who slammed the content of the recommendations and the process by which they were reached.
The proposal calls for concentrated study of between three and five texts in a large team-taught, autumn-quarter lecture course, followed by study in smaller thematic tracks in winter and spring quarters. The size of discussion sections would be reduced from 19 or 20 students to 15, who would be given more time together to talk about their assigned readings. Leading the discussions would be postdoctoral scholars recruited in a national search and hired for three-year terms as non-tenure line assistant professors.
While some faculty who have taught in the various iterations of Western Civ, Western Culture and CIV are concerned about the logistical challenges, most support the strengthening of the discussion sections. After all, they say, that's where much of the learning takes place.
For all the charges and counter-charges that have been traded over proposed changes this year, to sit down with students over coffee at Tresidder Memorial Union is to hear mostly wonderful, mostly wistful anecdotes of books read, questions considered and vistas opened for them.
"It made me really understand a different religious paradigm than my own," says sophomore Rajani Rajan, a practicing Hindu who had never opened the book of Genesis before she signed up for CIV's Great Works track. "If I had tried to read the Bible on my own, I never would have gotten anything not without the CIV lectures, but mostly, not without [discussion] section."
For students who have been trained in mimetic abilities in high school and encouraged to repeat back what an instructor tells them, seminar-type discussions can break new intellectual ground. There they learn to deal with ambiguity and there they learn that multiple readings of texts are possible.
Many CIV instructors, in fact, take dramatic steps to encourage multiple interpretations of texts. When David Riggs, professor of English, lectured on The Tempest last fall for CIV's Europe and the Americas track, he delivered an eloquent commentary on a traditional reading of Shakespeare's play, illustrated with projected slides of a god-like Prospero and accompanied by a soulful rendition of the bard's "Full fathom five thy father lies."
But 25 minutes into the lecture Riggs stopped suddenly and said, "Now throw out all I've said." He then spent the second half of the lecture suggesting an Americanist reading of The Tempest, based on details of a 1609 shipwreck off the coast of Bermuda that Shakespeare may have borrowed from for the play's New World settings. In such an interpretation, Riggs suggested, Caliban could be seen as an enslaved savage.
Two days later, Mary Pratt, professor of Spanish and Portuguese, offered yet another take for the same class. Her lecture focused on A Tempest, a 1968 anti-colonial rewrite of Shakespeare's play from an Afro-Caribbean perspective, by the Martinique author Aimé Césaire. Pratt asked her students to look at the role of nature in the play and to consider the values that were introduced by African characters.
Getting students to challenge assumptions and to ask the really big questions is another goal that draws widespread support from humanities faculty and from voices outside the academy.
Five years ago New York film critic David Denby decided, at age 48, to re-enroll in the required humanities course he had taken as an undergraduate at Columbia University 30 years earlier.
In Great Books, published last summer, Denby wrote about what he discovered as he re-read Aeschylus, Machiavelli, Montaigne and Beauvoir. Classroom discussions exploded the arguments he'd heard from critics on both the left and right those who charge that Western classics empower white males and disempower everyone else, and those who are convinced the books constitute part of a national defense stratagem.
In fact, Denby said in a recent interview on the "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," the books he read could only serve to "shake you to your roots. They are devoted to questions of identity not who are you in terms of race, gender and class, but what are you willing to live for? What are you willing to die for? What will you pass along to your children?"
That aspiration is echoed in the legislation for Introduction to the Humanities, which calls for the study of "what it is, and how many ways there are, to be human." Broadly conceived, the various iterations of introductory humanities programs at Stanford from Western Civilization to Western Culture to CIV have been an acculturation to college-level thinking, introducing freshmen to the life of the mind and teaching them how to listen more critically, how to read more abstractly, how to write more analytically.
The focus increasingly has been on studying primary texts. How those texts are chosen has always provoked contentious debate on campuses. In the 19th century educators argued that Voltaire did not belong on the same reading list with Tacitus, according to Lawrence W. Levine, professor emeritus at the University of California-Berkeley, and author of The Opening of the American Mind. More recently, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison wrote: "Canon building is empire building . . . and all of the interests are vested."
A prototype autumn-quarter course for Introduction to the Humanities suggests that students study five primary texts: Dante's Inferno, Leon-Portilla's Broken Spears, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude.
All of these titles, except the García Márquez novel, are currently taught in CIV, and in recent years faculty in that program have met annually to decide which common readings and elements would be on the syllabus [see sidebar on page 29]. The designations are broad enough to encourage faculty to experiment with different texts and new ways to present issues. While all students are exposed to the work of Freud, for example, freshmen in the Myth and Modernity track read Interpretation of Dreams, while those in Great Works study Civilization and Its Discontents, those in the Europe and the Americas track explore Dora: Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, and those enrolled in the Humanities course study Five Lectures on Psychoanalysis.
By keeping Broken Spears, an Aztec account of the Conquest of their empire in Mexico, on the proposed reading list for Introduction to the Humanities, the faculty who designed the prototype autumn course signalled a concern for including narratives from other cultures and building on the pedagogical emphasis of Cultures Ideas and Values.
In one CIV course, for example, a modern Navajo tale, Son of Old Man Hat, is juxtaposed with Augustine's Confessions to explore how peoples of different cultures find personal identity: The Navajo thinker seeks harmony with nature, while the early Christian searches deep within himself for spiritual guidance. Similarly, The Tale of Sundiata, an oral poem sung by the early bards of Africa, often is taught in conjunction with Beowulf and The Song of Roland to suggest African ideals of heroic aspirations.
Those contexts have a profound impact on students like Rajan and on the generations who came before. Rajan spent last summer in the Sacramento home of Carol Jacobs Anspach ('57) and Denny Anspach ('56, '60 medicine) while she worked as an intern at the California State House, and she and her hosts often talked far into the night about the books today's freshmen are reading.
When the Stanford alums asked her if it was true that Toni Morrison's Beloved was on her assigned reading list, Rajan said, "Yeah, sure. But I said that was only one work out of 30. And when I told them we started with Plato and Aristotle and did Confucius and a lot of other guys, Carol was like, 'Oh, that's what I did when I was at Stanford.'"
Says Carol Anspach, a school psychologist, "I think a wide spectrum of beliefs should be explored and read, and adversarial positions taken. Every viewpoint has to be offered, and in-depth curriculum has to be provided to freshmen, to prime the pump." ST
A Comparison of Required Readings
CORE LIST OF WESTERN CULTURE PROGRAM: 1980-1988
Hebrew Bible, Genesis
Homer, selections from Iliad or Odyssey
One Greek tragedy
Machiavelli, The Prince
Luther, Christian Liberty
Galileo, The Starry Messenger, The Assayer
Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto
Freud, Outline of Psychoanalysis, Civilization and Its Discontents
Strongly Recommended Works
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Politics
Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy
Descartes, Discourse on Method, Meditations
Cervantes, Don Quixote
Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government
Rousseau, Social Contract, Confessions of Emile
Hume, Enquiries, Dialogues on
Goethe, Faust,Sorrows of
Mill, Essay on Liberty, The Subjection of Women
Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals, Beyond Good and Evil
CIV COMMON READINGS 1995-96
A classical Greek philosopher
An early Christian thinker
A Renaissance dramatist
An Enlightenment thinker
CIV Common Elements 1995-96
Works by women, minorities and persons of color; works introducing issues of race,gender and class; works of non-European provenance.
Works read by 2 or more tracks 1995-96
9 tracks: Bible, Freud, Marx, Engels
7 tracks: Aristotle, Augustine, Shakespeare, Wollstonecraft
6 tracks: de las Casas, Douglass, Plato, Shelley
5 tracks: Aquinas, Locke, Luther, Machiavelli, Montaigne, Virgil, Woolf
4 tracks: Darwin, Descartes, Diderot,
Gilgamesh, Homer, Leon-Portilla,
Mill, Nietzsche, Rousseau, Sappho, Sepulveda, Sophocles
3 tracks: Dante, Donne, Hurston, Jacobs, Kafka, Kant, Koran, More, Morrison, Voltaire, Wordsworth