I opened Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” Monday afternoon on January 20th looking to retreat from the old, white male readings that had become normal to me in and out of the classroom. While I’ll admit that my required Machiavelli reading was very interesting — given the current consequences in political affairs — I thought the least I could do was take a break to acknowledge King for his immeasurable contribution to freedom and justice.
After all, this is what I was missing by not pursuing African American, ER&M and African studies in my first year of college. My friends’ shock when I told them that I had decided to take Directed Studies — a year-long program that focuses on the fundamental authors of the Western canon — was obvious. While they joked that I was crazy for willingly subjecting myself to reading66 books and writing 18 essays over the course of two semesters, behind their teasing I could also feel their avoidance of the elephant in the room.
The long-standing campus narrative about Directed Studies is that it is for a specific type of student. Critics of the program point to the restrictions in reading books primarily by ancient white men with antiquated antagonisms toward women and people of color. Looking around the seminar table, classmates of color are underrepresented. Conversely, many of my peers are not confronted by this problem but are instead captivated by courses like “Who is an African American?” “Sickness and Health in African American History” and “Fruits of Empire.” They praise their culturally conscious professors and the culturally significant texts they are happy to interact with on a daily basis. Each time I hear my friends talk about the diversity in their classes and texts that they encounter, my heart sinks just a little bit more.
As a woman of color, I am often asked why I chose to take Directed Studies, and how I feel reading texts that have served as justification for the racism and misogyny that plague our world. Even though I am painstakingly aware of the detriment that these texts have caused, reading them and participating in this program has been instrumental in building a bridge between two worlds. It’s time to debunk and demystify Directed Studies by addressing the elephant we so often ignore.
Directed Studies is not just for students who come from privileged backgrounds and have read these texts in high school. Many of my classmates, like myself, are introduced to these formative texts for the very first time in college. As a result, our seminars are filled with a variety of students from various backgrounds with an array of knowledge concerning these works. And as for our professors, they welcome — and even appreciate — our fresh enthusiasm for the literature that they have studied throughout their lifetimes. In the words of my fall term literature professor, “I wish I could read Virgil’s “Aeneid” again for the first time.”
The mind-blowing reality about all of this is that the central themes of these texts are easily comprehensible, simply because we are troubled by them every day. Ideals about the best form of government, concepts expressing the human desire for immortality and notions of true beauty perplex our minds just as they did the ancient philosophers, authors and political theorists. This is not always immediately recognizable, considering the fact that the diction and language often used by these thinkers differs greatly from ours, but nevertheless we are still grappling with the same issues from centuries ago.
Because we have not figured out the answers to these meaningful questions, it makes what may seem like archaic ideas crucial to today’s society. Matters like equality, morality, literacy and community not only serve as the foundation of thought for many of these thinkers, but also for many of the social justice crusaders of the 21st century. Sure, Plato and Aristotle were not advocating for climate change and even actively promoted racism, yet the ability to not only understand their core theories but also read against them is what makes Western literature important and timeless.
This, to my surprise, is what Martin Luther King, Jr. so eloquently executed in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” What I thought would be an interruption in my Directed Studies readings was actually an exhilarating re-examination of some of the authors that I had read in my classes. King enumerated excerpts from the works of Plato, St. Augustine and St. Aquinas — all books I had studied in my first semester. He even alluded to Machiavelli’s key theory in “The Prince” — the exact book I put down to read his letter! My Historical and Political Thought professor even showed me the 1962 “Social Philosophy” syllabus that King taught at Morehouse College; it’s almost exactly like the Historical and Political Thought track of Directed Studies.
Of course, I had read this exceptional essay previously, but the impact was not as extensive as it was for me last Monday. Now, I understand the references to Socrates that I probably brushed past in high school. Now, I admire King even more for his brilliance in drawing the connection between the social structure of the ancient world to segregation in the 1960s. Now, I am reinspired in remembering my purpose in Directed Studies — to build bridges between worlds that people assume are polar opposites.
Needless to say, my experience is not universal to every Directed Studies student. Neither am I justifying the narrow focus of the program nor reinforcing Western superiority, which too often ostracizes so many monumental texts and authors of different literary traditions. I am simply acknowledging the real purpose of Directed Studies, which is partly to read a plethora of fascinating books, but also to bring attention to how these books have been used, accepted and rejected throughout history and beyond by world-class thinkers, like King, and my fellow classmates.
ZAPORAH PRICE is a first year in Ezra Stiles College. Her column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .