21st-Century African-American Perspectives on Race


Through close reading and discussion of a number of modern classics this course will seek to better understand two lines of African-American thinking about racism today. The more mainstream, “liberal” school of thought contends that America has always been — and is still today — a fundamentally racist nation. The less known, “conservative” school of thought contends not only that America has made great racial progress, but that the greatest obstacle to further progress is the “liberal” narrative itself. Readings includes works by Derrick Bell, Shelby Steele, Ta-Nehisi Coates, John McWhorter, Ibram Kendi, and Glenn Loury. Prior to the first class, please do the readings indicated on the syllabus and watch the 2020 documentary What Killed Michael Brown? … with as much “critical empathy” for each work as possible. Continue reading

A Matter of Black and White: 20th Century Perspectives on Race


Inspired by W.E.B. DuBois’s famous thesis that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line”, this course will try to understand a variety of 20th-century perspectives on race through a sympathetic examination of a selection of classic works of fiction, nonfiction, and cinema by authors and directors Black and White, including: DuBois himself, Rudyard Kipling, Frantz Fanon, Thomas Dixon, Jr., James Baldwin, and Joseph Conrad, as well as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Prior to the first class, please do the short readings and watch D.W. Griffith’s (in)famous 1915 silent film, The Birth of a Nation … from a perspective as “critically empathic” as possible. Continue reading

Home Front, War Front: “Mrs. Miniver” and “Scarlett O’Hara” as the Interpretive Keys to Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun


Since it was first produced on Broadway in 1959 and by Hollywood in 1961, Lorraine’s Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun has been widely ranked as a modern classic — though perhaps not a completely understood one. For a full appreciation of this self-consciously-literary work requires not only, in general, a deep appreciation of a large number of subtle allusions in the text, but also, in particular, a deep appreciation of a few seemingly-trivial allusions to two of the most important American movies to come out of the World War II era: Mrs. Miniver (1942) and Gone With the Wind (1939). Once these contextual and intertextual allusions are fully understood, individually and collectively, the full significance of A Raisin in the Sun as a “war film” about the “home front” of America’s “race war” — indeed, as an “African American war film” about the “home front” of America’s “race war” — comes easily into view. Hansberry’s work thus exemplifies the dictum of T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent”: that no artist “has his complete meaning alone” but rather can only be fully appreciated when set “for contrast and comparison, among the dead”. Continue reading

“Impeachment” in the Constitutional Sense


Despite its hallowed status, the United States Constitution of 1787 is an imperfect text which sometimes obscures more than it reveals. Such is the case with the long-and-widely misunderstood Constitutional provision for “impeachment”. This lecture will attempt: first, to explicate the true meaning and operation of “impeachment” in the Constitutional sense through a close reading of the 1787 text within the 1787 context; and, second, to survey and explain the history of post-1787 (mis)understandings of this aspect of the Constitution. The possible contemporary political significance of a better understanding of the impeachment provision of the Constitution will be studiously avoided. Continue reading

The Content of Our Character: Lessons from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Volume One


Besides being an object of general intellectual curiosity, the decline and fall of the ancient Roman Empire has long held a special fascination for those concerned with the health and well-being of a subsequent empire. After all, if the later empire could understand the mistakes of the former one, perhaps they — and the attendant imperial decline — could be avoided. Edward Gibbon, who wrote his monumental, six-volume History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as the British Empire was arising and the American Empire was aborning, certainly seems to have thought so. This lecture will survey Gibbon’s account of “the beginning of the end” for Rome as told in volume one of his work, with special attention to the lessons Gibbon believed he had gleaned from that pivotal period — most of which deal with a perceived decline and fall of the Roman national character. Continue reading

Could It Happen Here? Now? Dystopian Novels for Our Time


In a time when many believe that contemporary events are unfolding in ways that bode ill for the future, the dystopian classics of youth are the focus of renewed interest as possible guides to “what might happen”. This course will be devoted to a careful, mature consideration of four such classics as we seek both to understand each text as a literary work originating in its own time and place and to glean possible insights into our own time and place. The texts are: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World; Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here; George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four; and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Continue reading

Pirsig’s Progress: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as a Modern Spiritual Journey


Since its publication in 1974, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values (ZAMM) has been widely hailed as a modern classic as well as a work that defies conventional characterization. Part novel, part diary, part manifesto, ZAMM relates the thoughts and experiences of a philosophically-oriented unnamed middle-aged narrator as he progresses along a number of simultaneous personal journeys, all of which facilitate an overarching spiritual journey toward wholeness and wellness. Overall, though, ZAMM appears to be a special kind of “Chautauqua” designed to induce analogous journeys in readers. This course will undertake the ZAMM journey through close reading and discussion of this modern masterpiece along with related Platonic dialogues that lurk in the background. Continue reading

‘Rags to Riches,’ American Style: Classics from Horatio Alger and Andrew Carnegie


Although the “rags to riches” motif is ancient and widespread, the American version has attained a unique place in world culture. This course examines two of the most well-known — but often little-understood — American embodiments of the “rags to riches” motif: the fictional characters of Horatio Alger, Jr. on the one hand, and the decidedly non-fictional Andrew Carnegie (who rose from poverty to become one of the richest men in the world) on the other. Readings include Alger’s all-time best-selling novel Ragged Dick; or, Street Life in New York with the Boot Blacks and Carnegie’s “Gospel of Wealth” essays. Continue reading

‘We Must Not Be Afraid To Be Free’: The Trials of George Anastaplo


George Anastaplo (1925-2014) has long been a legend for his decade-long Cold War fight against the State of Illinois’s refusal to admit the young World-War-II veteran to the practice of law on the basis of Anastaplo’s assertion of fundamental rights he believed enshrined in the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence. This lecture will combine a review of Anastaplo’s case (from its obscure 1950 Chicago beginning through its famous 1961 U.S. Supreme Court culmination) with a survey of Anastaplo’s understanding of the constitutions of the United States in an attempt to illuminate both the man and the myth. Continue reading

‘It Can’t Happen Here’? A (Frightening) Look at American Dystopias


Although a long line of American authors have written about the United States in positive and even utopian terms, others have written about a darker place, even imagining a dystopian America. For example, in 1935 Sinclair Lewis published a novel depicting a fascist dictatorial takeover of the United States along the lines of Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany. For many the very notion of an “American dictatorship” is a contradiction in terms and thus too absurd to merit serious consideration: America is often believed to be self-evidently “exceptional” and thus immune to ills that can befall other nations. As Lewis’s title somewhat mockingly put it: It Can’t Happen Here. This lecture surveys several 20th-century works whose authors thought that political evil can indeed “happen here” and that Americans ought to be vigilantly on their guard against “it.” Continue reading