Blasting the Canon: On the Need for Inclusive Syllabi

by Jovel Queirolo, ’14

As an overeager high school senior, I unknowingly submitted myself to four years of stereotypes and no years of the dreaded IHUM – I decided to do SLE. Structured Liberal Education (SLE) is a Stanford program that offers first year students the opportunity to learn about history, literature, philosophy, and art without having to leave their dorm. At this time last year, our SLE cohort excitedly began the treacherous journey into modernity. I expected that the spring quarter readings would really resonate with us Millenials, but I found myself disappointed. For my final paper, I decided to review my intellectual experience in SLE in an effort to understand the dissonance I was feeling between my life and those we studied. I analyzed our “great books” syllabus and found that 6 out of 60 authors and thinkers were women, and predominantly white, upper class men filled the other 90% of the curriculum. With the ratio of female and male students and section leaders at about 1:1, I began to wonder what it means to receive a liberal education that so blatantly excludes other identities in this postmodern era.

In January of 1972, Mark Mancall wrote, “The liberal education was, and is, meant to produce an ‘educated man’ who would be both a participant in and contributor to a liberal culture…this implies the development… of the rational and logical faculties of the mind, a development that is nourished and promoted by a structured liberal education.” Mancall was describing what would become the SLE program for first-year students at Stanford University. Almost 40 years later, Mancall – SLE’s founding father – still gives lectures on Karl Marx, emphasizing Marx’s importance in SLE syllabi throughout the program’s history. He says, “Marxism is a rigorous form of analysis. With a Marxist framework, one can look at situations, analyze them, and formulate claims or arguments. SLE is a study of the present as a result of the past, and SLE teaches young thinkers to not only think critically and analyze the present and understandings of the past, but to ask the right questions” SLE has left (and continues to leave) a lasting mark on the university. If SLE is meant to facilitate understanding of the present through the past, and if liberal education is meant to produce an “‘educated [person]’ who would be both a participant in and contributor to a liberal culture,” then I hope that SLE would expand its presentation of history as a history of western men and their ideas. While the task is by no means easy, I would hope that the radical nature of SLE would push it towards to weaving in other stories and identities to remain true to a Marxist understanding of history – as the history of class struggle.

The revolutionary spirit on which SLE was founded should be revived in questioning the relevance of the western canon, and the incorporation of new canons into what the academy considers to be an exceptional liberal education. In 1977, doctoral student Gary Natriello did a study of SLE and noticed that, “There is some evidence that the program has lost a bit of its original experimental and creative spirits. The increasingly structured nature of the program may tend to discourage continued creativity unless special attention is paid to maintaining a spirit of experimentation.” Natriello’s praise and concerns could be applied today. SLE continues to offer a unique, informative, and fulfilling year of intense, multidisciplinary study of the human condition. But SLE has yet to deconstruct and analyze the western canon’s implications – especially the absence of western women from a western-centric look at history.

If SLE were indeed to take on the task of including women it its future curricula as important additions to its western-centric study of history, it could also build upon what were seen as more meta-debates when Stanford questioned the canon: a question of whether or not having a canon is necessary. Humanities Professor James J. Sheehan asks, “Should a core list of primary works be required? I find this the most difficult item on your agenda… A ‘core list’ has two powerful disadvantages: first, it limits courses’  flexibility and makes it difficult to deal with some… issues… it implies an endorsement of a ‘canon’ and thus undermines our awareness of a culture’s diversity and historicity.” According to Mancall, there exists a canon because the academy was born in the west, and the western canon captures western thinkers who informed the development of ideas within the western academy. But that canon no longer paints an accurate depiction of the present as a product of the past.

The past of the current college generation is one where women and people of color have written new frameworks for thinking about the world. SLE, as a highly critical body within the academy, should be rethinking is core list and deconstructing a canon that undermines the critical study of diverse modes of thinking. The canon, as it stands, is a bourgeois institution, and under Marxist ideals the incorporation of women would provide a more complete picture of western history but the canon itself is a bourgeois illusion of reality.

Canon formation is premised on the mistaken belief that aesthetic judgments and distinctions of taste can be made under objective conditions free from moral, political, economic, and social influences… Any assault on the canon must therefore begin by unmasking this fetishized image of cultural sanctity and the fictitious creed of immaculate classification. The true power of the canon stems not from its various hierarchical discriminations and orderings, but rather from its mythical status through which it draws symbolic strength.
from Rethinking the Canon,” The Art Bulletin 78.2 (1996)

The canon on which SLE currently relies is a portrayal of the west as a source of original, necessary ideas thought up by western men. But the academy has extended beyond the reach of small, elite universities in Europe. The canon with which western men in western universities fetishized and praised the legitimacy of western ideas is not a canon that has cultural significance to socially diverse campuses. If SLE is to truly empower and produce scholars concerned about the current state and future of liberal education, section leaders, administration, and the students themselves should and can begin to think more critically about the frameworks SLE teaches as well as the challenges to those ways of thinking. In Marxist terms, SLE must acknowledge other classes existing outside of the context of the canon and give them a voice in order to be truly revolutionary.

While I cannot speak for my former classmates, I hope that students and section leaders continue to have critical conversations on the very foundation of their studies for the year. Jean-Paul Sarte said in his preface to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, “We were the subjects of history, and now we are the objects. The power struggle has been reversed, decolonization is in progress; all our mercenaries can try and do is delay its completion… Our Machiavellianism has little hold on this world, which is wide awake and hot on the trail of every one of our lies.” SLE may be destined to decolonize its curriculum. SLE must give up its western-centric presentation of history and include not only western women but all people who provide insight into class struggle over time regardless of race, class, physical ability, gender, sexuality, religion, and other identities.


Jovel Queirolo is a sophomore from the San Francisco Bay Area hoping to major in Biology with a minor in education. She is interested in the intersections of the sciences and the humanities–particularly the patterns and themes that emerge and reoccur in both. Through reflection, public service, and activism she envisions a world invested in social healing and wellbeing.

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