Because I will be returning to teach in our First-Year Core this semester, I thought I would talk a little about this course, which the members of the incoming class will be starting on Wednesday (Sept. 1) morning at 11. The Core has several purposes. It is designed to help students hone their skills in close reading and clear speaking and writing. It helps build intellectual community not only among first-year students, but also among the nearly 30 faculty members who participate each year. These faculty members include some of Whitman’s very best.
The readings in the Core are selected to expose students to some of the central ideas of Western intellectual history. I believe that it is impossible to be an engaged citizen without regularly confronting these ideas in meaningful ways. To illustrate this, I would like to present a few examples of the relationship between our Core readings and issues that have come up in this year’s presidential election. It is not my desire to influence anyone’s vote, but merely to give some examples of the significance of the ideas found in these texts.
My favorite reading in the second semester of Core is the Second Treatise of Government by John Locke. This was written to justify the so-called “Glorious Revolution” in England by the forces of the Parliament against the forces of the crown, and it was widely read by the framers of our own constitution. It builds a case for limited, liberal, representative government based upon preservation of basic individual rights, with the most important being the right to private property. It is no exaggeration to state that the fundamental question of the upcoming election may be whether it was ethical, wise, or even practical for us to attempt to impose John Locke’s philosophical notions upon nations such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
To paraphrase Bill Clinton, every national election is, to some extent, “about the economy, stupid.” In particular, there have been heightened concerns lately about American jobs moving off-shore to cheaper labor markets and about new jobs being created that do not provide what Americans view as a living wage or that do not include important benefits such as health insurance. When students read the Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, they are sometimes tempted to dismiss the work entirely because Marx’s utopian predictions were so wildly wrong. Still, Marx was an insightful commentator on the excesses of nineteenth century laissaiz-faire capitalism. When our presidential candidates debate the question of how best to influence our modern economy to serve the interests of the citizens of our country, they are addressing the same questions that Marx wrote on a century and a half ago, and often using the same arguments.
Another work we discuss in Core is the Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals by Immanuel Kant. There we encounter the famous Categorical Imperative, which states that we should only act according to maxims or rules that we can rationally will to be universally applicable to everyone. It follows easily from the Categorical Imperative that it is unethical to lie, since if everyone lied at will it would be impossible for society to function. The Democrats have made much of John Kerry’s record as a decorated Vietnam veteran, and in particular, their arguments have an essentially Kantian cast, which goes something like the following: In the 1960s, if it was an ethical obligation for some young men to be willing to serve in Vietnam, then all young men were so ethically obligated. Whether your vote will be Democratic or Republican depends, to an extent, upon your reaction to the proposition that it is morally better to have served in a war you later opposed than to have avoided a war you later supported.
One of the more interesting issues to have arisen in the campaign has to do with the moral implications of conducting stem cell research. In the Core we read the truly revolutionary writings of Charles Darwin in The Origin of Species. America is both a deeply religious nation and a scientific nation. More than a century and a half after its publication, Darwin’s seminal work is still controversial, and the debate over stem cell research and the ongoing debate over evolution are clearly related. They are two aspects of the larger question of how to reconcile the religious and secular strands of our cultural heritage.
Race relations have been an important issue in every national election in the history of the republic. Near the beginning of the second semester of Core, we read Shakespeare’s Othello. To me, the most interesting part of the play is not the actions of the veteran soldier who is black in marrying and then jealously killing Desdemona, the pure young woman who is white; rather it is the reaction of everyone else in the play to these events, whether it is Othello’s evil but trusted lieutenant Iago, his good but untrusted lieutenant Cassio, Desdemona’s father Brabantio or the rulers of Venice. The last book we read in Core is Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, about a runaway slave named Sethe for whom slavery was so horrific that she felt compelled to kill her own child rather than let that child be returned to slavery. In recent elections the issue of race has often focused on affirmative action, but is a much larger question. When people vote, they often are saying something as to how they feel about Othello and Desdemona, and they are saying something about our collective moral responsibility for what happened to Sethe and her child.
My purpose in these remarks is not to take any particular political position, but merely to point out that the ideas routinely encountered in the liberal arts are central to the way we conduct our lives and to how we order our society. Whatever your political beliefs, it is impossible to avoid the issues discussed in a well-rounded liberal arts education.