Essay on intensive group reading courses at non-elite colleges
As James Baldwin draws to a close his 1949 essay, “Everybody’s Protest Novel” — eventually pitting Richard Wright’s Native Son against Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin — one reads: “But our humanity is our burden, our life; we need not battle for it; we need only do what is infinitely more difficult — that is, accept it. The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being…” What I once heard in these words was a call to the humanities: Our humanities are our burden.
Rather than leave the humanities by the side of the road what is more difficult is to accept the stacks and stacks of them at our disposal and find or make a use for them in the curriculum of liberal arts education. More to the point, Baldwin’s essay seemed a dare to me, personally. He dared me, while hewing syllabi on the south side of Chicago, to make use of the protest novel (be it by Stowe or Wright), regardless of its alleged shortcomings. So, I assigned both Stowe and Wright in my next ethics class, which resulted in months of lively, original, and unplanned discussions comparing and contrasting both of them with various motifs in Friedrich Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals.
Most of the students were excited to read what they considered to be classics. What was more impressive and joyful to watch unfold was the way by the Wright’s and Stowe’s characters and narratives — regardless of what Baldwin sees as their shortcomings — gave the students a working and almost personalized vocabulary with which to interpret, analyze, and comprehend many of Nietzsche’s themes and insights. This allowed Nietzsche’s lofty rhetoric to seem a little less distant and, at least by way of Bigger Thomas, the transvalution of values became applicable on 95th Street. The very idea that Stowe, Wright, and Nietzsche were not made to be read alongside one another or that our doing so, in this class, was in some way strange was never voiced.
I do not teach in a Great Books curriculum, but I am a believer. I am not ashamed of the Great Books. If teaching at St. John’s or Shimer College represents a certain institutionalized kind of Great Books orthodoxy, then I am at least a layman of the Great Books, if not an iconoclast, and maybe even a heretical reformer. Whether from my own personal hubris, naïveté or arrogance, I believe that it is part of my job to choose the Great Books or, at the very least, to choose what great texts could be used this semester to illuminate or drive home the key points or high notes of this particular class. If this means that I am destined to vulgarity by allowing myself to teach and read texts that may never grace the annals of official Greatness, it is only because the owl of Minerva begins its flight only at the fall of dusk.
Chicago State University is the oldest public university in the Chicago metropolitan area. Its student body is comprised overwhelmingly of minority students; most of whom are black or African-American and, judging from the enrollments in my class, the majority of whom are women rather than men. Many are products of the Chicago Public School system. In my philosophy classes at Chicago State I advocate a discussion-based classroom that some might call Socratic. The classes rely heavily on weekly intertextual adventures with primary sources. I do not assign textbooks and rarely indulge in the use of anthologies. Class discussion and participation account for almost half of the overall grade. Although the students do take a sizable and challenging exam and must write a term paper of moderate length, they learn quickly that their true homework is to read multiple primary texts and find connections between them in order to illuminate, criticize, or supplement those very texts.
This does — credo! — contribute to an overall improvement in the caliber of their writing. I don’t teach my students how to write, but rather try to teach them how to read and, as such, to succor a love and appreciation of lifelong reading. This approach appears to inculcate in the student a vocation of scholastic responsibility. They consider it their job as college students to read, learn and master — as much as such a thing is possible — as many "classics" as they can be exposed to during the precious reading time allowed to them during their college years (which I constantly remind them is a luxury that they will all-too-soon come to miss) and, further (perhaps I should add Baldwin’s phrase, “infinitely more difficult”) not just use that information to spit out book reports and answer trivia questions, but rather craft an intelligence from that information by finding or creating a way by which this canonical intelligence sheds insight and comprehension on other fields of study and other non-canonical approaches.
If reaching an understanding is what they want to get out of a class (a teleological or practical ambition, which I leave up to them to decide), they are obliquely invited to consider that if they cannot use this understanding to understand something different or something more, then perhaps they (or we) have not understood it that well, at all. Students feel proud and confident when one of their own customized and idiomatic intertextual connections or tropes help another student in the discussion reach an understanding on a particular point that the latter may have missed without the help of the former. It is almost an epiphenomenal bonus that this cooperative understanding which emerges through class discussion comes about only by way of an applied cultural awareness and knowledge of classic or canonical texts.
This often requires a thematic approach to reading texts. It is important to get across to the students that this is not the only, nor the best, nor the most desirable way to read a text. But even this is a crucial opportunity to impress upon them that a text — specifically, the great texts — can and must be read in multiple ways and one is never, truly, done reading any of them regardless of their approach.
Rather than merely memorize the names and definitions from a list of informal logical mistakes, my classes will prepare for a discussion about such informal fallacies by reading from the speeches of Malcolm X, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow or Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. I find that students are apt — more so than rehearsing such errors from textbooks — to grasp, remember, and even enjoy the intricacies of enallage and homonymy or the fallacies of amphiboly and accent after struggling with Slothrop’s various uses of “You never did the Kenosha kid” or the tragicomic dangers of equivocation after reading Uncle Toby tell Lady Wadman that she shall see the very place or put her finger on the very spot where he received his war wound.
Even the best and brightest students can fall into momentary disinterest if discussion seems to collapse into an exercise in bookishness or erudition for erudition’s sake. Glazed eyes, drooping heads, and the checking of text messages can accompany any litany of Latin names. But rather than let a species of anti-intellectualism take root and win the day, those very eyes and heads tend to brighten and perk up when such thoughts are addressed (or, better: applied) through the words of Malcolm X.
Argumentum ad populum feels a little closer to home when reading: “One of them will never come after one of you. They all come together.” Argumentum ad misericordiam has a little more gravity after reading: “With the skillful manipulation of the press, they’re able to make … the criminal look like the victim.” If the difference between ad hominem (circumstantial) and ad hominem (abusive) just isn’t clicking, it only helps to consider how: “in Asia or the Arab world or in Africa, where the Muslims are, if you find one who says he’s white, all he’s doing is using an adjective to describe something that’s incidental about him, one of his incidental characteristics; so there’s nothing else to it, he’s just white.” After that connection is made, it is easier to identify argumentum ad veracundiam when Malcolm compares that Muslim world to: “over here in America … when he says he’s white, he means the boss.” The fallacy of suppressed evidence or the Straw Man version of ignoratio elenchi seems less abstract while reading: “They take one little word out of what you say, ignore all the rest, and then begin to magnify it all over the world to make you look like what you actually aren’t.” The fallacy of composition (and, by contrast, division) is just waiting to be explained with Malcolm’s dinner table analogy: “Because all of us are sitting at the same table, are all of us diners? I’m not a diner until you let me dine. Then I become a diner. Just being at the table with others who are dining doesn’t make me a diner.”
These are just a few examples from only one of Malcolm’s speeches; the one delivered at Ford Auditorium in Detroit on February 14, 1965. (By the way, the students are more likely to remember the Latin names of the fallacies after experiencing them in action by Malcolm, even though he does not call them by their Latin names.) With the proper patience and an eye for detail, almost any of his speeches suffices as a dangerous supplemental text to both formal and informal logic. I’ve had similar success with Noam Chomsky’s Failed States. The same could be said for reading Audre Lorde’s “Poetry is Not a Luxury” from Sister Outsider alongside René Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy or Zora Neal Hurston’s Moses, Man of the Mountain in tandem with Sigmund Freud’s Moses and Monotheism (or, simply, the Bible).
It does not always work, of course. There are collateral failures. It does not go by unnoticed when a business major drops my business ethics course because reading a scant 20 lines from the Iliad about the problem of greed is not what the student wished to sign up for. And it is the case that some students simply aren’t prepared to jump into a whirlwind of primary readings. A student who misses one week of class can feel overwhelmed that he or she is already 300+ pages behind.
But being the vulgarian Great Bookist that I am, I can indulge in merely decent books (which is to say, more readily available and readable books) in order to get to the Great Books; to achieve, like Milo and his calf, a progressive resistance that can build up the reading muscles over a matter of weeks. Once a student, who has not yet given her or himself over to a consistent practice of reading or, perhaps, was simply never encouraged to do so, knocks out Kurt Vonnegut’s Galàpagos in a week — and is a bit surprised to have done so, quite easily — he or she is likely to make it through Aristotle’s Parts of Animals in the following weeks, and within a month is working through Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man with a working set of intertextual concepts that feel quite close to home.
There is, of course, a very real danger of such a curriculum coming off as a one-sided hermeneutic by which certain texts resistant to the status quo or stereotypical power codes of the established canon are only appreciated through the Eurocentric lens of that very canon. I can anticipate such criticism from thinkers and critics, whom I take very seriously and whose concerns I share, such as Amiri Baraka, Gayatri Spivak, or Edward Said. I do not think that an intertextual approach necessarily condemns one to making sense of resistant texts only by the yardstick or measure of accepted ones. James Baldwin did not need Dostoevsky to understand Richard Wright any more than Cornel West needs Chekhov to understand John Coltrane.
As cautious and concerned as I am of being complicit in various forms of Orientalism, Eurocentrism, or logocentrism I am even more concerned at allowing that caution to squelch the priceless and productive intertextual adventures that may result from refusing the separatism that forever quarantines the likes of Baldwin, Wright, Malcolm X, and Lorde to what Bertrand Russell calls “the evils of specialization” in The History of Western Philosophy as if they have nothing to teach — as dangerous supplements — to students also interested in Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Nietzsche, or Freud. But, once again, even this danger and problematic is a teachable moment in such classes by which to discuss and address the appropriateness or inappropriateness of such a curriculum. And you are likely able to end such a discussion in such a class — if such discussions or classes have ends — as I have, with Audre Lorde: “while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.”
Virgil W. Brower is full-time lecturer in Philosophy at Chicago State University, where he has taught for nine years while completing a dual-Ph.D. program with the Chicago Theological Seminary and Northwestern University in theology and comparative literature, respectively, with a home department in philosophy. He is author, most recently of, “Ethics is a Gustics" and “Speech and Oral Phenomena.”