Stanford University

I have received from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, with a request for my comments, the text of the section dealing with Stanford from the last edition of Choosing the Right College (see attachment). This coverage of American universities is a major enterprise and is worthy of high commendation. I recommend that you read the section on Stanford and send me any comments you may have if you are a member of the Stanford community. Here are mine. They are colored by the fact that I spent years in the Oxford system and have studies or visited and written  about universities in different parts of the world. I am aware of the advantages and disadvantages of  the different systems.

A basic change is that the focus of university education. In the old days the Humanities, or Letters as it was then called, dominated the scene. At Oxford the Greek and Latin "Greats" had a place of honor.The study of the present was viewed as unscholarly because we lack documentation and perspective. A university turned out a well-read individual with a liberal education. which was not a preparation for a specific job. There was indeed no employment counseling office. When I came to Stanford in 1941 the scene was similar.  It was all rather non-functional. Now the stress if on the present, and historical studies have taken a back seat.  A university may be compared with an automobile, with a lot of back seat drivers.  In the driver's seat are the sciences, including technology and medicine, studying the surrounding scenery and pèering into the future.  This is true at Stanford, where the president is a computer specialist. It is the best administration we have had during my long years here, but there is a danger. Provost Fred Terman deserves immense credit as the father of Silicon Valley, but he had little idea of academic freedom.  He wanted good relations with government and corporations, which is where the money is.  Any faculty member who rocked the boat too much was penalized. This may be a congenital problem with engineers.  During the Cold War I gave a talk to a group of Silicon Valley people on the Soviet threat. My talk was of course brilliant, but it aroused no enthusiasm; It turned out that many corporations were trying to make deals with the Soviet Union. But I repeat my unqualified respect for the present Stanford administration.

The attached description of Stanford omits what I view as a national tragedy, indeed betrayal.  When I first came to this country in 1937, geography departments occupied a place of honor in universities. Now elite universities, including Stanford, have abolished their geography department.  At Stanford the situation is absurd.  There is no geography department but there are two anthropology departments. This change of stress seems to be political.  Geography  is a neutral subject, whereas anthropology, in so far as it deals with what we used to call the Third World, appeals to those with a political mission.

We need detailed acquaintance with the world, and for this reason the US government funded language and area programs.  Area studies meant primarily geography,  and "language" meant a high degree of proficiency in the language of the area. There should be a setup by which area specialists could move back and forth between government and academia.  At Stanford, with immense effort, we created a Latin American program which was widely regarded as a model. It offered the AB, the MA, and the Ph.D. However, the geography department was abolished, and the university insisted on downgrading the program to the MA level, which would have made the movement between university teaching and government impossible. This was so foolish that I quit, and the program disappeared.  On the international scene. the US is suffering from lack of the expertise which such programs could provide.  In the system in which I grew up foreign languages played an important role.  Now, with English being the global language  and the number of  languages having expanded beyond the old duopoly of French or German, language departments have suffered.  They do not generally attract the best students, and the faculty often consists of natives who help give the university the the multicultural color which is politically correct.

The ISI report laments the disappearance of Western Civilization courses, which have been replaced with a General Education Requirement. Admittedly the "Yo! ho! ho! Western civilization must go!" movement was led by yohoos, who are a variety of yahoos, and some of the new courses scarcely contribute to a liberal education.  At the same time, it must be recognized that we live in an age of globalization. We are aware that part of our culture goes back to the Arabs, who derived some of it from India. In addition, we on the West Coast are especially sensitive to the historical role of East Asia.  I regret that China played no part in my education.

The ISI report makes reference to the Hoover Institution. I am unique in that I am the only faculty member who knew Herbert Hoover and was familiar with the Hoover Library long before the Tower was built.  I was a member of the original committee which divided responsibilities between the Hoover Library and the Main Library, now called the Green Library.  It was a reasonable division, and the Hoover Library built up a splendid collection.  Now Green Library has taken over all responsibilities for books and periodicals, leaving the Hoover Library with its important archives and related books.  I will not go into the events which led up to this, but I am saddened that our careful work has been undone. Since I am the only surviving member of the original committee, I grieve in solitude.

Please read the attachment.

Your comments are invited. Read the home page of the World Association of International Studies (WAIS) by simply double-clicking on: Mail to Ronald Hilton, Hoover Institution, Stanford, CA 94305-6010. Please inform us of any change of e-mail address.

Ronald Hilton 2004


last updated: December 5, 2004