Black Student Activism and the Origins of the Stanford Canon Debate

Laney BSU members protest closure of the COA Children’s Center, Oakland, CA, April 13, 2010 (Flickr)

In the late 1980s, the Stanford University Black Student Union stood at the center of a controversy involving the school’s Western Cultures track—a three-quarter, mandatory course designed to support student’s major fields of study through the humanities. When Stanford administrators implemented the curriculum in 1980, they claimed that the Western Cultures readings constitute a “common intellectual experience”—a canon, or a set of popular and historically significant books. Around this time, even the United States Department of Education released a pamphlet to outline appropriate texts for humanities courses. In 1984, Education Secretary William Bennett published, “To Reclaim a Legacy: A Report on the Humanities in Higher Education,” complete with writings from ancient and modern thinkers. The Black Student Union (BSU) argued, however, that the all-white, all-male reading list excluded valuable racial and gendered perspectives and represented anything but a series of relatable texts.

Delivering an open letter to the Faculty Senate in 1986, BSU Member Bill King charged the administration with racism. Shortly after, BSU President Amanda Kemp, in an interview with the Stanford Daily, explained that the Western Cultures track misses important perspectives and fails to “examine what it means to be [Black].”1 Some members of the Stanford community, though, disagreed with the BSU. English professor William Chace and student groups favoring the existing Western Cultures curriculum challenged the BSU’s demands and fought to preserve the core reading list and existing course. Despite this opposition, the BSU prevailed. Through a series of direct-action protests and continued curriculum change demands, in April 1988 the Stanford BSU and their allies successfully persuaded Stanford administrators to re-create the Western Cultures track to be more inclusive.

Under the direction of Black historian Clayborne Carson, the Western Cultures track transformed into Culture, Ideas, and Values (CIV). The new curriculum shortened the reading lists, included more women and “non-Western” writers, and required the inclusion of non-European cultures. The BSU and their Rainbow Coalition allies—a group of Latino/a/x, Asian, Asian-American, Pacific Islanders, and white allies— celebrated the Faculty Senate’s decision. Opposing groups, such as Save the Core and Students for Western Cultures, were disappointed by the outcome. By this time, Bennett had joined the debate and the US Secretary of Education referred to the decision to replace Western Cultures with CIV as a “damn shame” and “intellectual suicide.” Yet, this was only the beginning of the conflict. As the BSU claimed victory, the culture wars laid claim to the contours of the disagreement.

Mainstream political debates erased the role of Black student activism in the transition from Western Cultures to Cultures, Ideas, and Values. As political heavyweights joined the discussion, Black students’ voices—and, more importantly, their desires for a more inclusive curriculum—were co-opted and dismissed. After the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, and other major publications ran stories disparaging the Stanford BSU and the restructured CIV course, Bennett became even more involved in what is now referred to as the “Stanford Canon Debate” or “Stanford ‘Great Books’ Debate.” The same month that the Stanford Faculty Senate voted in favor of adopting CIV, editors from the conservative student newspaper Stanford Reviewinvited Bennett to campus for a debate. Bennett accepted and met with Stanford President Donald Kennedy to argue for the value of Western-centered curriculum. Representatives from the Stanford BSU were allowed to ask questions or comment on the debate, but were not invited to participate.

In addition to Bennett’s contributions on behalf of supporters for the Western Cultures track, conservative social and political commentator Dinesh D’Souza circled back to the debate in the early 1990s. In his bookIlliberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus, D’ Souza claimed to interview several politically left-leaning students that favored changes to the Wester Cultures course. According to D’Souza, students were not entirely clear about the parameters of the debate and, in some cases, could not articulate why they supported curriculum changes. Although it was later discovered that D’Souza fabricated these interviews, it did not matter—the book accomplished its goal of representing Stanford students as uninformed and misguided while presenting higher education as a site of leftist indoctrination. These views, however, are not new nor are they unique; D’Souza was simply attempting to confirm conservatives’ opinion of colleges and universities as havens for socialists and left-leaning radicals. In order to do this, D’Souza communicated these views through subtle anti-Black critiques of the Stanford Canon Debate.

The conflict—referred to in historical memory as the Multiculturalists vs. the Traditionalists—obscured the overall objectives of Black students and the fight for curriculum change. It eventually trickled down to K-12 education and, in the mid-1990s, became a feature of the National Endowment for the Humanities’ (NEH) effort to promote a more inclusive curriculum. With the Stanford Canon Debate fresh in the memory of policymakers and political figures, the NEH attempted to satisfy liberal and conservative constituencies. Conservative political figure, former NEH chairwoman, and future-Second Lady Lynne Cheney was paired with historian Gary Nash to develop a uniform humanities curriculum that included opposing political ideologies. After producing the National History Standards, it seemed as if the debate about teaching US history was settled. Yet, at the last minute, Cheney refused to endorse the curriculum design, calling it “the end of history.”

In 2023, curriculum debates persist. Conservative political figures’ misguided policies on the teaching of history target classroom discussions and readings involving race. Several states have passed bills limiting the US History curriculum, often referred to as “anti-critical race theory” or “anti-woke” legislation. In Florida, multiple colleges and universities have eliminated or re-structured courses to de-emphasize race. Similarly, the state’s Republican Governor Ron DeSantis vetoed an Advanced Placement (AP) African American History course because, among other concepts, it employs queer theory as a historical interpretation. As Black voices are historically erased in these debates, political figures such as DeSantis attempt to conceal these same voices in real time.

It is clear that history curriculum and the role of education remain a significant part of the contemporary culture wars. Colleges and universities serve as ideological battlegrounds between left- and right-wing political groups as the former attempts to expand curriculum measures while the latter engages in painstaking efforts to restrict the teaching of history. Meanwhile, Black student-activists, past and present, have challenged curriculum standards to develop a more inclusive, equitable, and just education system. In illuminating the origins of and emphasizing the contributions of Black students to these curriculum debates, we can understand how Black students advocated for more than a re-structured curriculum as they rearticulated campus social life and challenged the intellectual contours of major disciplines.

  1. Monique Sheer, “CUS endorses new core class,” The Stanford Daily, December 4, 1986.
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Brandon James Render

Brandon James Render is an assistant professor of history at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. His current book project, Colorblind University: A History of Racial Inequity in Higher Education, explores the intellectual genealogy of racial colorblindness throughout the twentieth century. It argues that the civil rights and Black Power era not only functioned as social movements, but resulted in intellectual shifts that fundamentally re-shaped Americans’ collective interpretations of race. His research has received support from the Gilder Lehrman Institute, the John Hope Franklin Center at Duke University, and the Texas State Historical Association. Aside from research, his teaching interests include twentieth century U.S. history, Post-1945 social and intellectual movements, and race and public policy. For the 2021-22 academic year, he served as the Mitchem Dissertation Fellow at Marquette University and completed his PhD at the University of Texas at Austin in May 2022. He’s been a member of the AAIHS since 2017. You can follow him on Twitter @brandonjrender.

Comments on “Black Student Activism and the Origins of the Stanford Canon Debate

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    This is a very good read! Informed, timely and relevant.

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