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When Bill Bennett Came to Stanford 

His bold stand for Western Civ showed up the passive faculty, who abdicated their role under student intimidation.

8/31/1987, SEP 1 1987; Secretary of Education William Bennett speaks to a groups of students at Mont
8/31/1987, SEP 1 1987; Secretary of Education William Bennett speaks to a groups of students at Monterrey Elementary school in Thornton.; (Photo By Damian Strohmeyer/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

The most famous academic event of the culture wars of the 1980s took place at Stanford University in January 1987 on Martin Luther King Day. Jesse Jackson came to The Farm, delivered a Rainbow Coalition speech, then led a crowd of 500, mostly students, in a march across campus, chanting, “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Civ has got to go!”

That is the common version: Jackson rousing students and profs to multiculturalist denunciation. It has gone down in history as a signal moment in the decay of the university. But that’s not what really happened.

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The term, first of all, was “Western Culture,” not “Western Civ.” It referred to a specific freshman course that students had to take in order to graduate. The complaint about it was a familiar one—too Eurocentric, male, and white—and the main complainants were activist students of color who needed nobody to arouse them, not left-wing professors and not Jesse Jackson. They had wanted the course scrapped for two years.

Jackson himself didn’t push to abolish the course. Instead, according to the Stanford Daily, Jackson urged the university to add a proposed course with more minority and female representation to the existing Western Culture classes. That is, he tried to soften the protest against Western Culture, suggesting a multicultural add-on, not a replacement. As Stanley Kurtz puts it in his reconstruction of the affair, to Jackson, “their chant was too negative.”

Peter Thiel remembers it that way, too. He was a Stanford undergraduate at the time, a conservative kid who founded the alternative student paper the Stanford Review. Graduating in 1989, he entered Stanford Law and continued to monitor the controversy. In The Diversity Myth: Multiculturalism and Political Intolerance on Campus, Thiel and coauthor David Sacks recalled Jackson’s speech and stated that as the crowd chanted and headed toward the building where the Faculty Senate was convening, Jackson “was taken aback by the fury he had unleashed.” He tried to calm the marchers, “but his admonitions were ignored.”

And rightly so, the students would have said, because it worked. One hour later, as the crowd lingered outside the building, the senators approved a course that would fulfill the Western Culture requirement but include more works by women and minorities. The vote was unanimous. 

That decision to approve a one-time diversity offering wasn’t enough. Students demanded total elimination of the Western Culture course. As Sacks and Thiel noted, “Similar demonstrations followed in the tempestuous months ahead,” leading to full compliance in 1988, when the professors ended Western Culture for good. Until that final decision, students accused Stanford of insensitivity and “unconscious racism,” demanded a commission to study local racism and new administrators to support minority affairs, and staged a five-hour sit-in in the president’s office. The rare professor who endorsed Western Culture found himself labeled a propagator of malice. Here is how one student commented in the paper on a teacher who had defended Western Culture during the first class meeting of the semester: “The Western Culture program is an evil that denies many students the right to learn about their own cultures… I get tired of reading the thoughts of white men who probably would spit on me if they were alive to face me today.”

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Again the anger worked. On March 31, 1988, the Faculty Senate replaced Western Culture with “CIV,” a course in “cultures, identities, and values” that would explode the Dead White Male tyranny of the old syllabus. The vote was 39 to 4. A few professors objected, notably William Chace of the English Department (who became president of my institution, Emory University, a decade later), but nobody stood up for Western Culture in its existing form, only for a modification of it milder than what the multiculturalists wanted. Student activists had managed to paint any defenders of Western Culture—and of Western civilization in general—as racists, pure and simple. They won.

It was “an act of intellectual suicide and a damn shame.” So said William Bennett in a phone interview with the Stanford Daily in January 1988 as it became clear that Western Culture was doomed. At the time, Bennett was a famous Reaganite and a contentious figure in the culture wars. Ever since the publication in 1984 of the report To Reclaim a Legacy, which alleged that leftist ideology was corrupting the humanities, Bennett had been a familiar face in the debates over political correctness. The report was issued by the National Endowment for the Humanities, which Bennett chaired at that time, and he pushed the results in interviews and speeches. Now he was secretary of the Department of Education, where he had a larger microphone for his traditionalist views.

To conservative kids such as Thiel, nobody stood up the way Bennett did. If he came to campus, they could be certain that he would come out swinging. As they watched what seemed to them a pussyfooting faculty trying to appease protesters, they were impatient for a real debater. Bennett himself told me in conversation that in those contentious months, “I wanted in on the fight,” adding the qualifier, “but with good will.” He especially wanted to engage the students. Fractious students were familiar to him. He had earned a PhD in political philosophy at University of Texas and a law degree at Harvard and in the 1970s served as professor and dean at Boston University. Though a federal official, he still saw himself as a teacher. When Stanford reporters asked for his opinion, Bennett answered right back—not typical availability for a cabinet-level official. If he did show up in Palo Alto, surely students and professors would be eager to confront this famous culture warrior on the right.

And so Thiel and his fellows issued the invitation. As the event approached, “It did feel scary,” Thiel told me in a Zoom interview. Whatever transpired during Bennett’s visit had the potential to tip the momentum one way or another. The fate of Western Culture, along with what it represented, “felt like the most important thing at the time,” he said. The “Hey hey” slogan was aimed not just at a single class but at the West itself. As the students understood it, the stakes were global, World Historical in capital letters, like the anti-colonial movements of the mid-century. They deserved the heated words of Bennett’s polemics, not the judicious forensics of the profs.

Many professors today speak of Western Civilization as flatly abusive, but back then only the radical students spoke that way. The contrast between their accusations and the profs’ careful language was sharp. In Winter 1984, when the Black Student Union issued a report on Western Culture that called it “inaccurate” and “dangerously deficient,” Dean Carolyn Lougee characterized the BSU report as containing “very well focused and articulated concerns.” While students alleged that “a vast majority of White America continues to be held in the grip of racist ideology,” professors merely worried that adding more authors to the syllabus would require of teachers more breadth of knowledge than anyone possesses. Even those profs who backed the students tended to skip the negative tone, focusing only the positives of added non-white-male figures.

Dean Lougee, for example, when students alleged “the unwarranted glorification of one culture over another,” replied, “So much attention is devoted in these courses to criticizing the ethics and actions of the European past that the charge of ‘glorification’ is difficult to comprehend.” In other words, the students are right, Western Civ does bear lots of guilt, but the Western Culture course includes lots of guilt-trips and anti-Western sentiment, so relax.

That was the faculty style: moderate and mollify, sympathize but be practical. Bennett would do no such thing.

When he came to campus on April 18, student activists filled half the crowd and conservative students the rest, according to Thiel. “We still thought it was a debate about ideas and books,” Thiel told me. The other side ran in lockstep, he recalled, acting more like storm troopers than open minds, but throughout the event everyone stayed true to academic form, perhaps because of the presence of the press and Bennett’s fame. According to the Los Angeles Times, “The overall atmosphere was polite even during a half-hour question-and-answer period” (“Bennett Draws Fire in Stanford Talk Assailing Course Change,” 19 April 1988). Bennett thinks that students reacted well because they sensed his good will and weren’t paranoid, in spite of his bulldog persona. Some booing and hissing, some cheering, too, lots of hostile questions, but no protests by student groups and no shutdown tactics.

Bennett told them that “a great university” had been “brought low” by forces of “ignorance, irrationality and intimidation.” Students responded that he was “uninformed.” Bennett termed the new CIV model a “political product of a political process,” and students accused him of vandalism: “Why are you coming today to try to undo what we have worked for for eight years?” 

Thirty-four years later, Bennett remembers it as a great time, rough and tumble, as such occasions are supposed to be. But something was missing: the faculty didn’t participate. “They just didn’t show,” Bennett says. Professors who loathed him skipped the event, and so did those who didn’t. Or, if they were in the crowd, they didn’t speak. The Daily’s account of the speech doesn’t mention any professor who chimed in during the proceedings, nor does the LA Times story. President Donald Kennedy in a written statement called Bennett “ill-informed or irresponsible,” but he was in New York on a fundraising trip that day.

The students must have been affected by the absence or reticence of their teachers, who after all ultimately decided the fate of Western Culture. Professors who disliked Bennett could have stood with the activists and become their champion. Those who disliked the activists—or their tactics—could have used Bennett’s presence to rebuke them and steer them in better directions. Traditionalists could have lined up with Bennett and made a case for Western Civilization; progressives could have argued for bringing it down. Students could have witnessed the elders in debate, admired their knowledge and eloquence, and evaluated their respective truth. But no, they were on their own. The whole thing came down to a celebrity federal official running a giant part of the executive branch versus several not fully educated 20-year-olds on a mission.

The next day the controversy continued. Bennett appeared on the MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour with President Kennedy and a Stanford biology professor to debate what happened at the school during the revision process. “Does anyone really doubt that choosing works based on the ethnicity or gender of their authors trivializes the academic enterprise?” Bennett asked. Worse, he went on, the trivialization was carried out “not through force of argument but through bullying and threatening and name-calling.” 

The biologist flatly denied the tactics: “The only intimidation that I see was the intimidation coming from outside the university of people making false accusations.”

President Kennedy thanked Bennett for his visit, then assured viewers that the curriculum decision was no big deal, “a very marginal change in what is predominantly a Western culture course.” As for the intimidation charge, “no one who participated in it [the deliberations], including those who took the status quo side in the beginning, can be found who will say they were intimidated.”

Bennett replied that during the event, when he asked if anyone did feel intimidated, numerous student hands went up and lots of “I did, I did,” could be heard. After the speech “several faculty members” told him that anyone challenging the reformers got labeled racist and sexist. One French professor compared the campus to Vichy France. As Kennedy laughed off that comparison, Bennett called the labeling a matter of “public record” in the newspaper, and he noted the occupation of the president’s and provost’s offices in recent months, as well as the 300 students who had left the Jackson event and loitered outside the Faculty Senate meeting. In Bennett’s paraphrase, “if the faculty was going the wrong way, they were going to march in.”

Once again, Kennedy minimized those episodes, noting that the threat posed by students swarming outside the senate meeting was vastly exaggerated. Indeed, he says, when the professors filed out of the room after casting their vote, students “greeted them with a light scattered applause.” 

At the end, viewers could leave the show believing that Kennedy was right to downplay it all. But the open declarations of the students—their feisty opinions, sore resentments, and global conception of the dispute—belied Kennedy’s modest version of the affair. They forced the issue, demanded compliance, and smeared adversaries. Kennedy’s words wouldn’t have pleased them—they would have irritated them. Ironically, Kennedy defended Stanford as respectful of academic norms throughout the conflict, but in the students’ eyes, academic norms were as noxious as Western Culture itself when they delayed reform. Days before the January senate meeting, in the same issue of the Daily that carried Bennett’s first phone interview, one activist warned, “The students will form a line that professors have to walk through” as they enter the building. No intimidation? The fact that nobody at Stanford openly claims to having been intimidated doesn’t prove it didn’t happen. Effective intimidation keeps people quiet.

Today, Bennett believes that hostile students remained “academic” during his presentation because they sensed his readiness to listen and respond with forthright rebuff. This is the paradox of teaching that the Stanford episode reveals. The more the faculty met student aggression with conciliation, the worse the students behaved. Bennett had no patience for insult, so the students did not insult him. He defended Western Civilization with vigor, so their charges of Eurocentric racism fell flat. He recognized the gravity of the issue, the breadth of what the students (mistakenly) wanted to accomplish, and that flattered them a lot more than did the minimizing words of President Kennedy. Bennett called them intimidating, and that is precisely what they wanted to be, intimidating!

No wonder the professors avoided him. He showed them up as weaklings. Just about the only professor during those canon wars who wrangled with right-wing critics in public forums was Stanley Fish, then head of Duke University’s English Department. While every other tenured professor in agreement with multiculturalist change grumbled to one another about Bennett, Allan Bloom, Lynne Cheney, Dinesh D’Souza, and other critics, Fish “was jousting with Buckley and the New Criterion and going to the [conservative] National Association of Scholars conference.” That’s how Fish put it to me in conversation recently. He disagreed with Bennett, but like the Stanford students, he saw him as arguing in good faith. “I didn’t have a negative view of Bennett,” Fish said. “He was someone who really tried to boost the humanities.”

Fish’s colleagues, on the other hand, assumed Bennett & Co. were ideologues and meddlers who wouldn’t understand a page of Derrida or Foucault if you put it in front of them. “Professors thought ill of them,” Fish recalls, “looking at them as benighted reactionaries, not worth the effort of engaging.” Besides, he adds, it did not matter how many people bought The Closing of the American Mind and watched Bennett on TV. Multiculturalism had all the momentum behind the walls: “Students were flocking to theory courses.” Bennett told students they should read a few more books before judging the heritage. The professors, by their hesitation to criticize the young, licensed students to believe they already knew enough, that they were already fully capable of leading social change.

And so we end up with the college senior of today pitting her morality against the status quo, putting the elders in their place, and blazoning her disobedience for all to see. For every Bennett-like critic of activist students, we have 20 activist professors urging them on and 100 passive professors allowing them space. Students believe in the rightness of their causes. They don’t need the approval of teachers, not when it comes to social matters. No room for doubt when the ends are unquestionable: anti-racism, women’s health, etc. What do professors offer when it comes to the bigger questions of life? What convictions? They’ve shown their reserve time and again. Students don’t need them. 

Bennett at Stanford crystallized the drama. We saw players acting out their parts: the indignant undergrad, the supportive but cautious professor, the unsupportive but silent professor, the politic administrator, the blunt conservative public figure. The students are stalwart, and so is the conservative, but not the faculty and administrators. The latter’s guardedness only aggravates the tensions. 

Any faculty members back in the 1980s who thought that their indulgence benefited their students has not paid attention to what the deterioration of authority has wrought. It hasn’t inspired the kids to study harder and learn more. It hasn’t encouraged self-criticism and deep reflection. It hasn’t raised their tastes and curiosity. It hasn’t improved the atmosphere of the classroom. Political correctness has gotten worse. Students no longer see the teacher as a mentor or wise man. They save their passions for extracurricular action, not the library, lab, or studio. Those passions need to be refined and developed, but the students don’t look to teachers for help—and they’re usually correct.

If you have children in college, tell them to seek out those teachers who seem a little crusty and old-fashioned, who demand a lot but give lots of attention, much of it tenacious. Your children may resent the challenge, but ten years later that teacher will be the one they remember with gratitude.

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