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Stanford Faculty Debates Teaching of Western Culture


In a debate that reflects larger concerns over academia's place in society, faculty members at Stanford University yesterday discussed whether to abolish its required Western Culture program in favor of one including authors from a wider variety of traditions.

The Faculty Senate met for preliminary consideration of a report on the Western Culture program that recommends abolishing the current courses, and both sides produced " stunning oratory," said Lecturer on History Barry M. Katz, one of the report's authors.

"Both sides articulated very forceful positions," he said, adding that because the faculty speakers list is unusually long, there will be no vote on the program for at least a month.

Outside yesterday's meeting, almost 100 students, including members of the Black Student Union and a campus Hispanic group, held a silent vigil in favor of the change. Many students held posters with the name of a book and an author not included in the program's core list of 15 books, Katz said.

The Western Culture program requires that students take one of eight wide-ranging courses. The core books--including works by Homer, Dante, Darwin and Marx--are required reading in each of the eight, but beyond them, instructors can choose which books to include.

Faculty members who support changing the requirement said that the reading list, which includes only works by white men, is inherently biased against women and minorities.

"The current program has a racist, sexist and imperialist bias," Katz said, noting that one-third of Stanford students are members of a non-Western ethnic background.

"It would be wonderful if there were a [common] cultural background we could grasp, but it's unclear that it exists," Katz said.

The task force report, which gained the unanimous approval of Stanford's Committee on Undergraduate Studies, recommends that, in order to incorporate non-Western ideas into the program, professors be given full control of their reading lists.

Although the core group of 15 books makes up only half of the reading for each course, the current arrangement does not allow the individual professor enough freedom, Katz said.

But faculty members against changing the requirement said that the works now included on the reading list are truly the best works that one can read.

"History was cruel to women, oppressed groups, the poor. They had to work in the mines, they died young, so they didn't leave great works, "said William M. Chase, a professor of English who opposes the proposed changes.

"We can't rewrite history. We can't pretend that Plato was female or an African," he said, "and you can't pretend Homer was Chinese."

Chace said that all of the courses in the program already address the contributions of women and minorities as part of the individual choices of their professors. Core works take up about half of the semester, he said.

Stanford already has a requirement in non-Western culture, Chace said. This course, he said, is the "natural and appropriate place to look for further expansion" of non-Western reading.

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