The Left-Wing Case for a Western Civilization Requirement

In the 1980s, protestors at Stanford successfully petitioned the university to remove its ‘Western Culture’ requirement on the basis of the reading list’s ‘European-Western and male bias.’ When in 2016 the then-editor of the Stanford Review, Harry Elliot, tried to have the old Western Civilization requirement re-instated, he was met with similar cries of colonialism and racism. The ultimate failure of the Review’s campaign was greeted with great delight by the prevailing left-liberal consensus on campus. This was to some extent understandable; the Review’s campaign seemed to implicitly suggest that Western thought was superior to the canonical works of other regions.

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that there should be a Western Civilization requirement on campus; the arguments suggested by conservative groups such as the Review are powerful, even if flawed. Unfortunately, an activist body of supposedly anti-colonial and left-wing students has allowed the right to monopolize the case for this controversial requirement. Left-wing and post-colonial politics both emerged from, and make a forceful case for, Western Civilization.

First, however, it is worth re-stating the well-trodden, yet compelling traditional arguments for a series of classes focusing on Western intellectual history. Personally, the strongest case for such a requirement is simply that the vast majority of students at Stanford live in countries whose political structure is based on Western ideals, and an understanding of one’s own society is indispensable. The philosophical roots of the American nation lie so indisputably in the Western canon, that it feels like an argument too blindingly obvious to make. Indeed, the Declaration of Independence was largely inspired by John Locke. Therefore, for both those who wish to understand, and critique America, a knowledge of the great Western texts is integral. The university experience should aid these goals.

A keen grasp of the ideas that have shaped the West is particularly pressing at a moment in history when America appears to be in the midst of a political crisis. In the time of Trump, the Federalist Papers are more interesting and insightful on democracy, populism and political parties than anything produced by the liberal media in the past year. And on the current free speech crisis on American university campuses, who better to consult than John Stuart Mill?

In addition to fostering an understanding of modern America, a Western Civilization requirement may be a remedy for two of Stanford’s greatest problems. Firstly, an intensive course on some of the greatest thinkers and texts of the last two millennia would quickly extinguish liberal groupthink. Analyzing these texts requires an engagement with and acceptance of significant tensions surrounding many of society’s perennial problems, precluding dogma.

Secondly, a Western Civilization requirement may help to prevent Stanford apparent trajectory towards becoming a vocational university. The five most popular majors as of 2015-2016 – Computer Science, HumBio, Biology, Economics and Engineering – are all STEM. This is troubling for a university that claims to offer a liberal education. The Western Civilization Requirement that in 1980 set 15 books offered a strong grounding in the humanities. Nowadays, however, THINK classes such as ‘Food Talks’ set one book. It is difficult not to see this shift as indicative of Stanford’s broader drift from a liberal to a vocational education. An intensive Western Civilization requirement would be one way of leaving undergraduates with a more rounded university experience, and perhaps even persuading more students of the significance of the humanities. This traditional case for Western Civilization, however, has already been made a thousand times over.

Returning to the main theme, what particularly disturbs me about this decades-long debate is that supposedly left-wing and post-colonial student activists have so vociferously campaigned and argued against a Western Civilization requirement. Given that both post-colonial and left wing politics are imbued with Western ideas, why has it been left to the reactionary right-wing to make the case for this essential requirement?

Let’s start off with the left wing. The traditional narrative of the left is almost entirely European, dating back to the French Revolution in 1789. This strike against the ancient regime of Louis XIV was the first great blow against feudalism, and the Liberal, democratic forces the revolution released led to the 1848 revolutions and consequently the collapse of feudalism across Europe. After 1848, leftist intellectuals founded the radical socialist revolutionary Paris Commune of 1870. The crowning glory of the left, however, was the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the Soviet State that was subsequently bastardized under Stalin. And as to the thinkers and philosophers that inspired these developments? Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, Vladamir Lenin among many other ‘old white men.’ Regardless of how radical or moderate, and even if largely in response to the prevailing European political and social order, these great canonical left wing thinkers and events were nonetheless of Western Civilization. For supposedly left-wing students to associate Western Civilization entirely with oppression reveals, therefore, an astonishing ignorance of their own historical provenance.

At first glance, post-colonial politics appears to lend itself to a case against Western Civilization; the West after all did colonize and brutalize the global South for several centuries. And indeed, the great thinkers at the height of the anti-colonial revolt in the 1960s vociferously opposed Western philosophy. The legendary Frantz Fanon called for ‘an effective eradication of the superstructure borrowed by these intellectuals from the colonialist bourgeois circles’ which centered on the ‘Greco-Roman pedestal’ and was defined by the pre-eminence of ‘individualism.’ Mahatma Gandhi similarly rejected Western Civilization, which he saw as ‘propagated immorality’ and argued that post-colonial states such as India had to rediscover their indigenous means of political and social organization. Gandhi urged, ‘if India copies England (and Western Civilization), it is my firm conviction that she will be ruined’ and that instead India should return to its ancient, rural civilization that served to elevate the ‘moral being.’

However, these arguments are deeply flawed. It is first worth mentioning that these anti-Western visions are grounded in Western thought. Fanon drew strongly on Freud, Hegel, Marx and Jung while even Gandhi rested largely on Tolstoy and Ruskin. Intellectually, therefore, both the leftist and post-colonial thinkers primarily drew inspiration from Western Civilization.

More significantly, these vociferous polemics against Western thought were powerful in the 1960s following centuries of European domination. However, to use similar rhetoric in 2017 – for instance ‘decolonizing the mind’ and ‘destroying all vestiges of colonialism’ – is to have let the last 60 years of history merrily pass by. Put simply, the propagandist slogans of student activists opposed to Western Civilization requirements are still stuck in the euphoria of the 1960s when it looked as if these societies could have actually forged their own visions of modernity. Instead, the reverse happened; western notions of civilization and society prevailed in post-colonial states. Gandhi’s indigenous vision succumbed to Jawaharlal Nehru’s socialist nation-state and this pattern was repeated across the post-colonial world. As David Scott famously pronounced, the post-colonial world had become ‘conscripts of [a] modernity’ forged by Western thought and history.

Indeed, my own native Malaysia adopted the Western System from her colonial overlord, my other native country, England. Nehru’s India went a step further, and as well as adopting the Westminster system, maintained the British Raj’s administrative structure. This is the great tragedy of the post-colonial era; these states that had been under colonial servitude for many centuries adopted the ill-fitting guise of the Western nation-state with its implications of exclusion and homogeneity rather than opting for more indigenous means of political organization. This narrative is also far from new; even CLR James’ renowned Black Jacobins portrays Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Haitian Revolution of 1791 as both drawing inspiration from Robespierre and the Liberal French revolutionaries and creating a Haitian state in the European guise.

Therefore, regardless of the implications, it is undeniable that post-colonialism and its politics have become imbued with Western Civilization. The great texts of the Western canon have become indispensable to understand almost all post-colonial states, whether India and Malaysia or Ghana and Brazil, alongside America and England. Instead of producing somewhat pig-headed dismissals of Western thinkers based on their race and gender, students who consider themselves anti/post-colonial or left wing should argue in favor of a Western Civilization requirement that acknowledges this complex modernity. More than this, they should argue for a curriculum that reflects the complex complexion of contemporary global politics, in other words, for a non-Western civilization requirement to accompany a Western civilization requirement. After all, we inhabit a syncretic modernity in which India is being ravaged by a Hindu ‘tyranny of the majority,’ a phrase written first by John Adams in 1788.

We live in a world in which Western Civilization and its modes of thinking reign supreme. To understand or critique this world, therefore, a grounding in Western Civilization is essential. And, most of all, the post-colonial and leftist activists must remember their own roots in Western Civilization.

Ravi Veriah Jacques

Photography: UNC Students protesting Virgil Goode on 22nd April 2009. Credit: Moliverg

The article was amended on 08/03/2018, to account for the changing perspective of the writer, and now reads ‘More than this, they should argue for a curriculum that reflects the complex complexion of contemporary global politics, in other words, for a non-Western civilization requirement to accompany a Western civilization requirement.’ Previously this had read ‘Why not even argue for a survey of the non-Western world as well as a Western Civilization requirement?’

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