By David Kurlander

The culture war over the alleged teaching of Critical Race Theory in public schools has reached a fever pitch in recent weeks, with 21 state legislatures currently debating bills to limit curricula that they deem too negative about American history. On this week’s episode of Now & Then, hosts Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman discussed the origins of these educational battles, zeroing in on Reagan administration Secretary of Education William Bennett’s 1988 back-and-forth with Stanford University over the school’s decision to diversify requirements for the freshman “Western Civilization” course. A further examination of Bennett’s war on Stanford reveals a staggeringly familiar schism.

Stanford University introduced its required freshman year “Western Civilization” course in 1980. The course contained 15 seminal texts from the canon, from Plato’s Republic to Marx and Engels’ The Communist Manifesto. All of the books were written by white men. 

In 1986, Stanford Black Student Union leader Amanda Kemp launched a national campaign to get Reverend Jesse Jackson—then preparing for a presidential run—to visit Stanford in support of broadening the Western Civilization syllabus. On January 16th, 1987, Martin Luther King Day, Jackson marched alongside 500 students on the pastoral Palo Alto campus. “Hey hey, ho ho, Western culture’s got to go,” some of the students chanted. Jackson did not join the chorus, but his proximity to the marchers’ strong words catapulted the controversy into the national arena. 

 A month later, an obscure University of Chicago philosophy professor named Allan Bloom published The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. Bloom called the focus on diversity in college courses an attempt to “propagandize acceptance of different ways,” while railing against what he saw as the deleterious long-term impact of rock music and feminism. The book became a surprise bestseller. 

 Fault lines were being drawn. Back at Stanford, Kemp wrote a passionate op-ed denouncing resistance to the changes and arguing that ridicule from faculty and conservative students reminded her of the signs saying “N_____ go home” that had recently been spotted in Howard Beach, New York, the site of a brutal hate crime two years earlier. 

 President Reagan noticed the debate, but he avoided making a public statement. He did, however, pen a private letter in August 1987 to his friend, publishing magnate Walter Annenberg: “You know, Walter, I’ve had some hints that some of today’s faculty are the student demonstrators of the ‘60s. At any rate, there is no question but that our young people are getting a lot of indoctrination alongside their teaching.” 

 Where Reagan was private in his criticism, Secretary Bennett was fiercely public. Bennett had been an outspoken force in the administration since 1981, when Reagan had appointed him, at only 34 years old, as chairman of the National Endowment of the Humanities. Bennett, with both a law degree and a doctorate in Political Philosophy, had been a darling of the fledgling neoconservative movement; Irving Kristol, the arguable intellectual leader of the neocons, had pushed Reagan to give Bennett a shot. 

 When he became Secretary of Education in 1985, Bennett stoked controversy by speaking out against federal student-aid programs and bilingual education. Bennett also ruffled feathers by expounding on areas outside of education, supporting a highly controversial proposal to require HIV testing for gay men and vigorously defending Reagan aides implicated in the Iran-Contra Affair. Even some opponents admitted, however, that Bennett’s confrontational approach drew a great deal of attention to the often-ignored area of education policy. ”My goal,” Bennett said in a New York Times profile from early in his tenure, ”is to force a national debate over fundamental education issues.”

 In the same Times profile, White House Director of Communications Pat Buchanan said of Bennett’s style, “This is the politics of the future.” Veteran Democratic New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a dissenting voice in the 1979 vote to create the new Cabinet position, said, “What he’s doing is why I opposed having a Secretary of Education.” 

 Bennett waded into the Stanford debate in January 1988. He suggested that the activists were pushing for a return to the tumultuous campus protests of the Vietnam War era: “They are moving confidently and swiftly into the late 1960’s, and why anybody would want to do that intentionally I don’t know.”’ He followed up with more openly condemnatory remarks in a phone interview with the Stanford Daily, calling the proposed changes “an act of intellectual suicide and a damn shame.” He also suggested that Stanford could “beef up” non-Western requirements instead of “diluting” the Western Civilization class. 

 On March 31st, Stanford’s faculty senate voted 39-4 for permanent changes. The freshman course would be renamed “Cultures, Ideas, and Values” (CIV). Nine of the fifteen book requirements would be lifted, to be replaced with a list of potential texts from around the world and from a wide slate of racial and socioeconomic perspectives.  

 By the time of the vote, Bennett had already announced he would fly to Stanford to speak against the widely expected ruling. Then-Stanford junior Peter Thiel, founder of the conservative Stanford Review magazine and a leader of the College Republicans, was Bennett’s main student contact and promoter on campus. In advance of Bennett’s appearance, Thiel told the Daily that Bennett’s visit would allow “the other side of the Western Culture debate to get a full hearing. The visit will add to the debate.”

 On April 18th, students packed into Cubberly Auditorium to hear Bennett. In an hourlong address and Q&A session, Bennett—in a callback to Allan Bloom—said that the new requirements were “closing the Stanford mind.” 

 The night after Bennett’s speech, he appeared in a nationally televised debate with Stanford President Donald Kennedy, a proponent of the changes, on a MacNeil Lehrer NewsHour segment called “Contentious Curriculum.” Kennedy defended the vote, saying “I don’t think anything has been thrown overboard. I think what we have has been enriched.” Bennett countered by focusing on what he saw as “intimidation” tactics by the student activists: “Right from the beginning this was an assault on Western Culture and Western civilization…there were many editorials saying Western culture is sexist, racist, imperialistic and so on. All sorts of things written out of ignorance.” Predictably, reaction to the debate on campus—and in Washington—was fiercely split. 

The main players in the Stanford dispute continued to be political figures. Bennett would leave his post later in 1988. The next year, he became President George H.W. Bush’s first Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, or “Drug Czar,” at a moment of particularly aggressive enforcement of the War on Drugs. Thiel would go on in 1995 to co-author The Diversity Myth: Multiculturalism and Intolerance on Campus. He later co-founded PayPalwith Elon Musk and was one of former President Trump’s most visible defenders in the tech industry. Kemp became a racial justice coach and mindfulness mentor. Stanford has continued to debate its freshman curriculum, with the Stanford Review continuing to advocate for a return to the pre-1988 requirements.  

 Clearly, the divide—between the perspectives of Kemp and Thiel, Kennedy and Bennett, “Western Civilization” and multiculturalism—has only intensified over the last 33 years. With the current fracas over “Critical Race Theory” showing no signs of slowing, Bennett’s methods, for better or worse, have indeed proved to be “the politics of the future.” 

 For more on Reagan-era culture wars, read historian Gil Troy’s 2005 Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. And for a broader survey of education controversies, check out Thomas Bender and Wilson Smith’s 2008 American Higher Education Transformed, 1940–2005.

 To receive Time Machine articles in your inbox, sign up to receive the CAFE Brief newsletter sent every Friday.   

 The Time Machine Archive 

Catch up on the Time Machine’s deep dives into history, which offer context to understand our present challenges, including these recent pieces: