Here are two questions that strike me as worth thinking about.
Say you wanted to teach a liberal arts-style freshman seminar that introduced students to the idea of reflecting on politics and society, but you didn’t want to turn it into yet another Applied Ethics or Introduction to Political Philosophy class that crammed in all the essential philosophical problems and texts: Capital Punishment, the Duty to Obey the Law, Abortion, Euthanasia, etc., on the one hand, and Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Marx, Mill, etc., on the other. Instead, you’d much rather just use plain old essays — well-crafted, accessible, insightful, evocative, memorable essays — written by people who may or may not be academics or part of the academic tradition.
The kind of essay I’m thinking of would be one that didn’t so much need to be explained as experienced, that presents a viewpoint that seizes your imagination in some way, rather than an argument or conceptual apparatus that needs to be taken apart, dusted a little by a qualified technician, and then put back together in sound working order. These would be essays that have a force that can’t really be conveyed to someone who has not read them, and that become part of the background framework of your way of thinking about the political and social world and the stuff in it that matters. They would ideally be long enough to be a substantial read, worth assigning as a text, but not too long to be a task that requires the threat of academic sanctions to be completed. Above all, they must not be difficult to read or boring to think about. They should be the sort of thing people mean when they talk about the art of the essay.
The most obvious examples would be Swift’s “Modest Proposal” and Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” I suppose Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” would insist on going alongside King, although that’s lacking in originality. Another I would want to include would be Orwell’s “How the Poor Die,” presumably along with a few of his other essays. Something or other from Montaigne would be a good candidate too. I’m tempted by Walter Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History,” but that’s theoretically tricky, despite the vividness of the central Angelus Novus image. Gloria Steinem’s “If Men Could Menstruate” is rhetorically powerful, but a little short (perhaps alongside something else?). I would want Binyavanga Wainaina’s “How to Write about Africa” to be there. I would also like to find some rationale for Gogol’s “The Overcoat,” although I have no idea what that would be. (In principle, short stories are fine, but I wouldn’t want to go overboard on fictional narratives.) I would not include Camus’ “Myth of Sisyphus.” Maybe something from Bertrand Russell, such as “In Praise of Idleness,” although I can’t say I particularly warm to the idea.
There’s a premium here on including essays that students would not otherwise be familiar with (which is a strike against Swift, King, and Thoreau, but that aside) and that are likely to remain in their minds for some time. But they shouldn’t be short introductions to the thought of A Major Thinker, in any way that invites expert clarification from the resident qualified technician, apart from some historical context perhaps. (This would be a reason against using something from Marx or Hume.) Instead, they should show something about the social world that a student may not otherwise have sensed. They should be difficult to categorise. The seminar should have no overt theme to it, apart from the use of the essay as a format. They should be the sort of essay that can spark an hour or so of discussion, although you would have very little idea beforehand where to steer it or what points you would like to make. It should be a little difficult to articulate what an astute reader should learn from the essay, although there should be a good sense that something inside has changed. I leave aside all consideration of how on earth the students in the course should be assessed, whether by weekly reaction papers, or a longer essay of their own on some topic, or whatever.
So the first question is, what essays would be good to include in such a course? If you find it difficult to explain why a particular essay should be included, and it just seems like it should, that’s an indication it’s a good candidate. Philosophers are fine, as long as they are writing in a big-picture sort of way. Something from Michael Walzer or Bernard Williams perhaps, but nothing from Rawls. Possibly Shklar’s “Liberalism of Fear,” [or perhaps “Putting Cruelty First”] alongside Montaigne, but then we begin to stray a little into the theoretical.
The second question is, shouldn’t this all be a little easier than it is? I can’t help thinking that we (or I) ought to retain a better grasp of those examples of (mainly) non-fiction, other than the standard texts in the philosophical canon, that have shaped or articulated the way we (or I) think philosophically. We’re very aware of the books and papers we think about and work on now, but we lose touch with the essays for our eighteen year old selves.
(I intend this to be a thread that I’ll return to years from now, so if you come across it at some distant point in the future when it seems dead and forgotten, please add your thoughts nonetheless.)