Students at Stanford University have successfully petitioned to allow undergraduates to vote, on April 7 and 8, on whether to re-instate core Western civilization courses for all students. This bold campaign is headed up by undergraduate Harry Elliott, editor-in-chief of “The Stanford Review,” an independent campus newspaper.
Before Elliott was born, a bunch of agitators marched through campus chanting “Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Western civ has got to go!” in a crusade to abolish such studies and smear them as racist, sexist, and so on. The core humanities curriculum has since been replaced by a thematic batch of courses called “Thinking Matters.”
In the meantime, we should ask: where has gutting the study of Western Civilization—with its huge swaths of history, philosophy, arts, and literature—led? No doubt it’s played a huge part in embedding groupthink and political conditioning in the minds of today’s students. It’s led to a new era of coercion, thought policing, and even surveillance of students by their peers, as one Harvard student recently reported to Megyn Kelly.
How so, you ask. Well, learning about Western culture isn’t simply about undertaking a cohesive study of the history, philosophy, literature, and arts that have enormously influenced the world in which we all live. It is also about learning how to express ideas effectively, how to separate fact from propaganda through specific tools of learning developed in the West. Taking those tools away—such as the Socratic method, civil discourse, and rules of order and civil debate—hinders clarity, independent thought, and the powers of observation. It makes students far less able to resist conformity and groupthink.
There’s no question that college campuses have become breeding grounds for conformity and the fear of self-expression. The grievance industry and identity politics have conditioned students to be “triggered” by ideas or even words deemed politically incorrect. They now demand “safe spaces” to be protected from scary words, ideas, and thoughts. So students’ conditioned emotional reflexes now trump thoughtful discourse on campus.
Did this all just happen accidentally?
The War Against Independent Thought
The dirty little secret is that suppressing the study of Western Civilization is really about suppressing knowledge itself—especially the true self-knowledge that sparks independent thinking and the imagination. When people are stripped of such knowledge, they are more easily conditioned, more easily manipulated by propaganda, more willing to cede their power to the elites doing the conditioning.
All totalitarians know that to enforce obedient conformity they must first cultivate in their recruits ignorance of their purpose. They must block off all means of devising an escape route. In a sense, suppressing knowledge is like turning students into bewildered orphans who don’t know who and what influenced the world they’ve inherited.
Can they appreciate the complexities in the grand tapestry of world events? Are they familiar with the stories, legends, and myths that bind us together? No, not when they lack the foundational knowledge by which they can make sense of the connections in events and patterns of thought through the ages.
As Ben Stein recently observed, with a base of citizens so ignorant of their inheritance, we only end up “achieving” our society’s collapse. Notre Dame history professor Patrick Deneen stated with sadness in a recent article that his students, despite being good and polite people, were “know-nothings.”
He went on: “ask them some basic questions about the civilization they will be inheriting, and be prepared for averted eyes and somewhat panicked looks. Who fought in the Peloponnesian War? Who taught Plato, and whom did Plato teach? How did Socrates die? Raise your hand if you have read both the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Canterbury Tales? Paradise Lost?” Deneen noted that such ignorance isn’t so much a failing of the educational establishment as it is its “crowning achievement,” the intentional effect of reforms that trashed the study of Western Civilization.
Sure, these students know how to take tests and get As, but they are not equipped to think independently, largely because they’ve not acquired the tools by which to navigate the vast web of knowledge. They also know that any wandering off the plantation of political correctness can get them socially rejected and obstruct their career paths.
Grand Theft Edu
Imagine trying to learn to read without being taught the alphabet, without knowing which symbols correspond to which sounds. Or imagine trying to play a concerto without ever being taught how to decode musical notes and which piano keys correspond to which notes. Perhaps you’d do fine, with a knack for playing by ear. Maybe you’d simply figure it all out on your own.
But most who are put in that position—for example, students who are forced to read words by memorizing every single one independently rather than given the code of phonics—end up lagging, often faking it or covering up for skills they never were taught. However it happens, functional illiteracy puts people at a huge disadvantage socially and economically.
So does the cultural illiteracy. Eighth graders in 1912 were likely better equipped with foundational knowledge and tools of learning than college students today, as this exam from Bullitt County, Kentucky suggests.
Gutting knowledge of Western civilization doubtless has had a major destabilizing effect on society. It polarizes those who possess this knowledge versus a growing class of intellectual have-nots, who have been cultivated by education reforms that have chipped away so mercilessly on accessible knowledge and free inquiry.
A shroud of ignorance has been falling on students for generations now, at least since John Dewey advocated for an educational system that would for all practical purposes turn citizens into drones who would serve a central elite. C.S. Lewis wrote about this lurch towards a slave society of the conditioned ruled by their conditioners in his prophetic 1947 essay “The Abolition of Man.” Also in the 1940s, Dorothy Sayers wrote “The Lost Tools of Learning” in which she expressed alarm at the growing inability of people to separate fact from propaganda.
Destroying Collective Memory and Free Thought
The long march to destroy Western Civilization studies in both K12 and the university also amounts to an attempt to erase collective memory in the West, which isolates our minds from the context in which we live. The imposition of such ignorance happens wherever there is a totalitarian impulse.
For example, we can actually witness similar resolve—even though it shows a far more obvious approach to erasing cultural memory—in this recent video of ISIS militants literally smashing antiquities in the Mosul Museum. (Those artifacts, by the way, happen to be very ancient relics of Western civilization.)
Let’s never forget that free inquiry is the ultimate target of such grand theft. Since free inquiry is the heart and soul of Western Civilization, it stands in the way of coerced conformity of thought. That’s all there is to it. To achieve conformity of thought, power mongers do what they always do: launch book burnings.
Western Civ Supporters Versus Book Burners at Stanford
No matter what happens with the vote to re-instate the study of Western Civilization at Stanford on April 7 and 8, the success of the petition drive is an astonishing development. It comes after so many years of education reforms that have effectively enforced ignorance of Western culture.
Students are hungering for something more than the disjointed tidbits of knowledge they might pick up in theme studies that sit in for Western civ. They’re served up in courses like “The Language of Food” in the Stanford hash called “Thinking Matters.” If a real conversation got going at Stanford, it could end up as a springboard for discussion around the nation.
That would be disastrous for the power elites who always masquerade as purveyors of equality and diversity. Indeed, the pushback against the petition drive and the vote has been hostile and highly emotional. A witch hunt has ensued. It has all the fingerprints of outside mobilizers. Staff of The Stanford Review have been called names like “bitch,” “pedejo” (trans: “a**hole”), “racist,” “disgusting.” Petition signers have been identified and tracked down to be branded as elitists, racists, and haters. Why the violent reaction? Because the very prospect of free inquiry is a major threat to the political conditioning that’s been going on unhindered for decades.
“Who’s Teaching Us?” is the project that instantly organized to agitate against the vote to revive Western civ. Predictably, the agitators issued a “list of demands” that rounds up the usual suspects: racism, sexism, dead white males, etc. to justify slamming the door on any diversity of thought in the university.
In addition to firing teachers and administrators who don’t toe their line, the “Who Teaches Us?” project also demands a ballot question (post-deadline) to abolish even Stanford’s last remaining small program on Western Civilization, which is currently accessible only to a fraction of students who manage to get special permission to take it.
Imagine There’s No Gag Rule—It’s Easy If You Try
Just imagine if students were allowed to openly explore the question: What exactly is Western civilization? Then, after a bit of discovery, imagine they ask this: How and why did such huge swaths of foundational knowledge—of history, philosophy, art, and literature—become forbidden fruit?
I remember this realization happening to me. I was at first confused, then livid. So much basic knowledge was withheld—stolen—from me through random and faddish courses that claimed to be more “relevant” to education. In the end, they amounted to disjointed fragments of information. Later in life I picked up the pieces through self-education.
How I wish I had had solid and ordered survey courses in the humanities. They guard against fragmented thought. Chronologies are like anchors that help the mind grasp and place information in a continuum so the facts can be digested, analyzed, and integrated into a growing base of knowledge and memory.
If students became self-aware, and able to withstand the noisy recruited voices that condemn them for the sin of intellectual curiosity, they’d be able to see this. They’d probably feel as shanghaied into groupthink as I did.
Those who dare peek behind the iron curtain that’s been built against the knowledge of Western civilization will discover treasures that can help us all come to terms with our common humanity. If they permit themselves to inquire further, they will unearth amazing connections in the grand knowledge web that informs us of the cause-and-effect of history, the great debates of philosophy, and stories that explore the universal human condition. They will also discover to their chagrin that the story of Western civilization actually began in the Middle East, when only primitive white-skinned peoples inhabited Europe.
The study of Western civilization gives literature—from the Sumerian legend of Gilgamesh to J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings”—the context that allows a student to discover connections and influences in the wider world. The list goes on and on.
Those who dare to uncover that cache of hidden knowledge might even go further and develop real debating societies. Imagine them using the Socratic method for exploring arguments, and doing so without apology. Imagine if these tools were resurrected instead of suppressed by “debaters” whose only goal is to shout down and shut down debate. The total emotionalism upon which the detractors of Western culture rely would be exposed for the sham that it is.
Freedom and Friendship Go Together
The tragic irony embodied in those students who chanted at Stanford decades ago is that they used the very freedom of expression and inquiry afforded them by Western culture to tear that culture down. Today those agitators are the academic elites enforcing speech codes, groupthink, campus surveillance, and mass ignorance.
But there are cracks in the wall they’ve built. If there is a resurgence of civil discourse, students would soon get to know one another as real people, as friends, despite their differences. They’d no longer be separated by the contrived chasms and crass caricatures of identity politics.
As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, despotism puts all of its care into isolating people, preventing us from loving one another. Political correctness is a despot that stands in the way of real conversation and friendship. It isolates us from one another. This is why group think has got to go—at Stanford and everywhere else. Real freedom is ultimately about allowing real friendship to flourish.