"One can go far with intellectuals," scholar and novelist Carolyn Heilbrun once wrote, "if one keeps a firm grip on the obvious and announces it from time to time." A debate going on at Stanford University could belie Heilbrun's observation, however. The course of action most obviously correct is being presented there -- and it may not go far at all.
The matter is complex, but ultimately comes down to a simple question: Shall there be a list of great books of Western culture that all students at Stanford read? Reports from the university indicate there is no chance that the current list of some 30 required and recommended works will be kept as is, partly because there are no writings by women and ethnic minorities on it. The current list is composed of texts of inestimable value -- works by Homer, Vergil, Dante and Locke, to name a few -- but it does need additions. Jane Austen's novels, Emily Dickinson's poetry and Martin Luther King Jr.'s speeches and writings ought to be on it -- not because of the gender or race of the authors, but because of the value of what they created.
And that is exactly the position being advocated by about two dozen humanities faculty members at Stanford. Led by Prof. William Chace, this group wants to revise and keep the list of Western readings, a course that seems so obvious, so sensible -- particularly since Stanford students are also required to take a course in non-Western culture. But when the faculty senate votes, perhaps as early as Feb. 18, Stanford may well vote to have no Western reading list at all.
One of the most outspoken members of the no-list faction is William King, a senior biology major and head of the Black Student Union. King has declared that adding women and minorities to the current list of Western readings is "tokenism," a charge that betrays insensitivity to language, to say the least. Emily Dickinson and Martin Luther King Jr. tokens? Hardly.
An even more intellectually confused attack is that the list misrepresents the basis of our culture by being drawn overwhelmingly from Europe. This attack neglects the fact that the first entry on the current reading list is the Hebrew Bible, not exactly a European product. Even if the current list were to be revised, however, it would still likely be mostly European. And it should be. While there are manifold ways in which non-Europeans have enriched the life of this nation, they have done so within a cultural framework largely indebted to Europe. "We are a part of the West," Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Carl Degler told the faculty senate, "not because this country received Italians, Scots, Germans, Greeks, Irish, Poles and Scandinavians within its borders, but because the language, religions, institutions, laws, customs, literature and -- yes -- the prejudices of this country were drawn overwhelmingly from Europe."
Other attacks have focused on the nature of Western civilization, denounced by one placard being displayed outside the faculty senate as "rotten to the core." Were the sentiment less disturbing, one would have to smile at the irony of a demonstrating student unaware that among Western civilization's flowerings is the democracy that makes demonstrations possible. Inside the faculty senate, Western civilization has been declared outdated by "political exigencies," "social realities" and "scholarly understandings" of the last 20 years -- a rather hasty dismissal of a concept that generations have found of sustaining value.
Given this furor, one can see why a university might not want to have a list. As soon as you commit to paper what is most worthy of attention, people will disagree, sometimes in unpleasant ways. Nevertheless, coming to agreement on a core of knowledge is one of the most important things a faculty can do.
First of all, it demonstrates that some things are more important than others. The world is not a relativistic stew where everything is of equal importance. Learning to sort out the more valuable from the less, the significant from the trivial, the enduring from the ephemeral is difficult -- but it is also one of the highest purposes of education. When such choices are not made, colleges and universities -- and the schools that look to them for leadership -- fall all too easily into the notion that their purpose is simply to teach students how to think, a crucial skill, but one unlikely to be developed when there is no decision as to what students should think about. A Gresham's law takes over, with the easy and entertaining driving out the hard and challenging. Teachers teach popular novels and slasher films instead of Charlotte Bronte
Even more important are the social consequences of universities' failing to come to grips with the matter of what students should know. Our society, like all societies, depends for its cohesiveness on common knowledge -- a "symbolic code," Alfred North Whitehead called it. While that knowledge must reflect the experience of each new generation, it must also be linked to the tradition that has formed the society, a tradition that in the case of the United States is decidedly Western. Without this link to the past, we are unmoored, lacking the awareness of where we are and who we are, which is essential to determining intelligently what we, as an American community, shall be. As Whitehead put it, "Those societies which cannot combine reverence to their symbols with freedom of revision must ultimately decay."
With luck, someone will put that on a placard outside the next Stanford faculty senate meeting.
The writer is chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.