When I was in teacher’s college my first English Curriculum class was spent playing “four corners,” a children's game which is often played in elementary schools. (The fact it was played in a second-entry program at a major Canadian university is telling). Our instructor asked us to read the signs posted in each of the four corners of the classroom and to stand in the corner that best aligned with our thinking on why certain books should be studied.
I was one of two students standing in the “Great Books” corner. Ninety-six per cent of my colleagues were in the “diversity” corner. The exercise demonstrated the limits on diversity of in our universities. Students who hold traditional, conservative or religious values are often in corners by themselves. Progressivist education weds itself to identity politics and critical theory. Students have not been taught to recognize how they have been deprived of the most essential components of moral and intellectual development: great books. Here are five books I recommend to start reversing that deficiency.
Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington
Booker T. Washington was born in Virginia in 1856, seven years before the Emancipation Proclamation. Although he was born into slavery, Washington lived most of his life as a “free” man and became a successful educator, author and orator. Up from Slavery is a testament to self-reliance in the face of hardship and discrimination. Washington’s resiliency is best captured in a childhood anecdote where he describes how he quit his job at a coal mine and walked 500 miles for a chance to attend the Hampton Institute, a private school in Virginia for black children who could work in lieu of paying tuition. When he reached the Institute, Washington was tired and filthy from his travels. The head-teacher looked at him in disgust. After several hours of waiting, she demanded that Washington sweep out the school’s recitation room. “Never did I receive an order with more delight,” Washington recollects, understanding the order to be an opportunity. Washington could have easily taken offence at the head teacher’s request. His dishevelled appearance was an outward sign of drive and determination, but he was being treated like a servant. Nonetheless, he scoured the recitation room and exceeded the head teacher’s expectations. The challenge was indeed an opportunity. He was admitted to Hampton on the spot and went on to found Tuskegee University, one of the first African American institutions in Alabama.
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
As an introvert, I used to find seminars extremely challenging. I believed that introversion was a character flaw, and I deeply envied my extroverted peers who didn’t seem to worry about speaking in front of a group. It wasn’t until I read Susan Cain’s Quiet that I began to view introversion as a strength. Cain, an American attorney and Harvard graduate, examines the way in which Western societies champion extroversion as the ideal personality. This is obvious when you consider our education system’s incessant promotion of group work, collaboration, and “putting yourself out there.” Collaboration certainly is important, but so too is solitary reflection. Cain uses the 2008 financial crisis as a case study, and notes that many Wall Street financiers who predicted the crash were introverts whose thoughtful considerations and warnings were drowned out by gregarious brokers who confidently assured stakeholders that everything would be fine. One of my history professors once gave me an excellent piece of advice that is echoed in Cain’s book: When quiet people find their voice, they discover they have very interesting things to say. Cain dissuades introverts from faking it. You don’t need to pretend to be an extrovert, she argues, because introverts can offer unique perspectives and insights. They also have a responsibility to make themselves heard. If they don’t, those perspectives and insights will be muffled “in a world that can’t stop talking.”
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl
After spending three years in Auschwitz, the psychologist Viktor Frankl reached the surprising conclusion that life is meaningful. Frankl understood that man should not “ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked.” It is difficult to imagine a more soul-deadening atmosphere than a Nazi death camp, yet some university students appear to be addled with a sense of hopelessness which even Frankl was not. Is this hopelessness not justified? Isn’t our society corrupt? Isn’t our planet is dying? Isn’t it true that nothing you do will matter one-thousand years from now? Frankl’s memoir Man’s Search for Meaning leaves one with a different impression. It is nearly impossible to feel anything but gratitude for one’s own circumstances after contemplating his vivid descriptions of the Holocaust. Frankl developed logotherapy, which is founded on the premise that humans are primary motivated by a search for meaning. Frankl’s contemporary Sigmund Freud argued that the unconscious mind governs our behaviours and is profoundly influenced by repressed sexual desires. Logotherapy is more satisfying than Freud’s theory, however. Death camp inmates were starving and emaciated; their bodies had lost the ability feel and act upon sexual impulses. Even in this state, however, some men and women were possessed by an unwavering will to survive. They were not motivated by sex, but by the understanding that suffering did not render their lives meaningless. They could find meaning through suffering with humility and dignity.