ZELINSKY: MLK, God and morality

Yale students received their first Martin Luther King Jr. Day off a decade ago. Since then, we have seen 10 years of Sunday night parties and Monday morning hangovers. Some have participated in the Dwight Hall Day of Service; many have honored civil rights with typical weekend flair.

After the first couple of years of no class Monday, even the contrarians stopped writing to these pages in protest. Everyone knew the old arguments, so why rehash? Yes, MLK day did awkwardly elevate one holiday over others (for example, Veterans Day). Oh sure, it contorted shopping period into Houdini-esque convolutions. Yup, the Day of Service could just as easily occur on the Sunday prior to MLK Day. Not to mention the bugbear known as diversity. All this was boring, culturally insensitive news.

And somehow we still fail to have meaningful discussions about civil rights.

So, instead of restarting this dead debate whole hog — which would end with me being termed a racist, classist, sexist or some other -ist in tomorrow morning’s paper — I’ll take a few moments to reflect on a deeper message we can draw from MLK day.

Martin Luther King Jr. fought for civil rights, but Yalies little understand the sources of these rights. With the rise of social sciences, studying political philosophy has become less than sexy. Number crunching gobbledygook is in; great dead males are out. Students can and do graduate without ever studying the foundations of Western rights and governance. Ask them to articulate the first principles of their moral systems and they will stand agape. They may mumble something about human rights, dignity and other jazz. Poke a pin into the fluff and pop goes the logic.

This is not a new or radical conclusion. Just last week, Harry Graver (“Lucretius at Yale,” Jan. 12) grappled with some of these issues. He came close to explicitly making the case for a core curriculum. I’ll take the extra step: Yale desperately needs one.

But the faculty, mostly in the social sciences, will never agree to a core curriculum — the current, à la carte system allows their departments to grow because of student interest in cool-sounding topics. If Yale will not (or cannot) make students take classics, where else might they find discussion of first principles? Here again, we can look to Dr. King for the answer: in religion.

For MLK, rights came from God. His famous “I Have A Dream” speech likened the Declaration of Independence to a check promising African Americans their rights, a check he cashed in close to two centuries later. He consciously echoed Thomas Jefferson, who wrote that rights derived from a Maker.

As a man of faith, MLK knew the source for his moral system — Christian scripture and belief. Indeed, churchgoers of all creeds tend to grapple with existential dilemmas in sermons and study groups, the same type of conversations we want students having in our classrooms. If we cannot make these conversations happen in academic environments, maybe we can foster them in religious ones?

Until 1926, Yale mandated church attendance, precisely because the Corporation understood that contact with faith helps breed more moral students. Even afterward, many used to attend services. In his time, University Chaplain William Sloan Coffin, Jr. ’50 packed Battell with undergraduates who heard him preach on a weekly basis. (Side note: Coffin marched alongside MLK in many of the protests for rights, propelling Yale’s chaplain onto the national stage.)

Yale will not reintroduce mandatory services, even if it included an option for agnostics or atheists. To suggest such an idea would be as naïve as to ask for a core curriculum. But maybe our current Chaplain, Sharon Kugler, might be able to take a leaf out of Coffin’s book. Maybe voluntary Yale-wide sermons can make a comeback.

In order to be effective, Kugler will need to unabashedly honest about her own morality, just as MLK was unafraid to blend his own religion, politics and the philosophy that connects them. She will have to alienate some (maybe many) who disagree with her stance. The result might be controversial, but at least she would force students to confront the ethical underpinnings of the civil rights movement we supposedly commemorated with our day off.

Nathaniel Zelinsky is a junior in Davenport College. Contact him at nathaniel.zelinsky@yale.edu.

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