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Stanford Review lands Western Civilization proposal on ballot

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Late last quarter, the Stanford Review sparked a campus-wide discussion over the humanities and their place at Stanford with a proposal to reinstate a mandatory Western Civilization requirement. The conversation even broke through to the national level, with news sources such as The Wall Street Journal and RealClearPolitics covering the Review’s efforts.

The Stanford Review reported on March 9 that the petition to include Western Civilization on the spring ASSU elections ballot had been successful, acquiring over 370 student signatures – with nearly half of those students signing the petition in the three days prior. At the beginning of March, the Review’s petition had just over 200 signatures, well below the required amount. After launching an aggressive campaign to market the Western Civilization platform, the Review collected the remaining signatures in little over a week.

Stanford has been granted its first opportunity in living memory to comment on its academic core, and in a democratic manner, rather than trying to hold students or faculty hostage to the whims of a small number,” said Harry Elliott ’18, editor-in-chief of the Review.

In the opening days of March, Review personnel began distributing a document from the National Association of Scholars (NAS), a conservative non-profit organization. The document, entitled “The Vanishing West: 1964-2010,” analyzed the state of Western Civilization curriculums in American institutions of higher education. Though Western Civilization requirements were common before 1964, they have been gradually phased out in the five decades since.

“What is the future of a civilization whose heirs have largely become blinded to its history?” the document asked.

The document also bemoaned the growth of world history and multiculturalism, arguing that it “leaves students ill-equipped to understand the context of their own lives or the world around them.”

The Review’s petition got some unexpected support from Mark Mancall, co-founder of Structured Liberal Education (SLE) and Professor Emeritus of History. During a SLE lecture on March 4, Mancall endorsed some aspects of the Western Civilization proposal, saying that “there is only one canon” and, according to the Review, suggested that much of human thought is grounded in Western ideals. He also criticized the concept of safe spaces, arguing that “you need to feel unsafe to learn new things.”

Mancall’s opinion, Elliott said, “reinforces a general message I have heard throughout this campaign, which is that faculty who have seen generations of students understand … the enormous benefits to giving students some backing in the canon that was foundational to our society.”

Mancall had previously stated that SLE was born out of the ashes of Stanford’s previous Western Civilization program, which came to an end amid student protest in the late 1960s.

The Review also hosted two discussions open to the student body the day before and after the deadline; a panel was hosted at the Humanities House on March 8, followed by an open dialogue with the Stanford Native American Community on March 10.

The Review’s proposal was not free of significant pushback from dissenting students. The list of signatories was open for students to view, which led to claims that students who signed the petition were called out and ostracized by their peers; Elliott decried such activities as a “witch-hunt.” One such student, enrolled in SLE, wrote an anonymous article for the Review in favor of Western Civilization shortly after the proposal went public, which resulted in the student’s suspension from a GroupMe chat managed by the First-Generation Low Income Partnership (FLIP), of which the student was also a member. The Review alleged that the student, who later revealed himself to be Miguel Samano ’18, had been dismissed on the grounds that he had expressed a “differing opinion.”

The Western Civilization petition was also the subject of scrutiny by the ASSU Elections Commissioner, Eric Wilson ’16, who received a formal complaint from a student that the Review had misused email lists in campaigning for signatures. Using his Elections Commissioner email account, Wilson informed the Review that he had halted the petition, citing a policy that he believed the Review to have been in violation of, and requested how the Review had obtained the email lists. In addition, Wilson suggested to the Review that they could arrange a meeting with Nanci Howe, director of Student Activities & Leadership (SAL) to reach a solution. The Review responded with an article alleging that Wilson was “interfering with the democratic process” and abusing his power to silence the petition.

“I was disappointed with the way in which our complaint was initially handled,” Elliott said. “I was also dissatisfied with the fact that the ASSU seemed to be making up laws to suit the case after having determined guilt.”

In an email to The Daily from his personal account, Wilson wrote that his decision to halt the petition was not motivated by politics, as an unrelated student organization seeking group funding had been suspected (and later vindicated) of having abused the email lists as well. Wilson cited a clause within the ASSU Constitution that, at the time, he believed outlined policy that the Review had broken. The day after the Review’s article, he met with the Review’s representatives and Howe, and cleared the Review of all wrongdoing.

“It turned out that The Stanford Review was not supposed to be able to access class email lists, but could because of an administrative issue with the mailman system that allowed anybody on the class email lists to access them,” Wilson wrote.

Wilson also wrote that he “did not think it worth [his] time to respond” to the allegations made in the Review’s article, writing that it was “full of misunderstandings and misinformation.”

With elections coming up next week, Elliott hopes that students will demonstrate their support for the Western Civilization proposal with an affirmative vote.

“This election is a referendum on not only the future of Stanford’s education, but the future of Stanford’s way of operating politically,” Elliott said. “Voting for Western Civilization reforms the weakest aspect of Stanford’s curriculum, and makes the unacceptability of dictatorial politics clear to those who try to wield it.”

Voting on ballot initiatives opens at 12:01 A.M. on Thursday, April 7, and closes at 11:59 P.M. on Friday, April 8.

Contact Jacob Nierenberg at jhn2017@stanford.edu.

Jacob Nierenberg '17 is a coterm pursuing an M.A. in Communication on the Journalism track. The program is very busy and often precludes him from writing for The Daily, but he enjoys contributing stories and music reviews when he is able to. Prior to beginning the program, he completed a B.A. in American Studies. His hobbies include spending time with friends and listening to music, and he is always delighted to meet people as enthusiastic about music as he is.