I just got back from giving a lecture at a small liberal-arts college. The tenured professors were complaining. (That, after all, is allegedly what tenure gives professors the unlimited right to do). Their main complaint: Students are no longer doing the reading for “core texts” or “real books” courses.

My response: That’s not so true at Berry College. My students have always been pretty inconsistent when it comes to doing the reading for a particular class. They don’t always read Marx or whomever for the class when I actually talk (and want them to talk) about him. And one of the skills of the professor is to sort of dance around that “issue” in getting them as up to speed on Marx as best I can. On this front, things really haven’t gotten better or worse during my thirty-five years at Berry. And as far as I can remember, things were about the same when I was in college.

The best way to get students to do the reading is to have them write text-based papers. On this front, it might even be the case that things are getting slightly better. I just graded the second (of three) papers for my class in modern political philosophy. Maybe more than ever, the students displayed the “competency” about being able to argue intelligently based on their own reading of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, and of being able to integrate particular arguments from the text in their own “comparative narratives.” More impressively still, most of the papers were animated by the strong possibility that these great thinkers really know what they’re talking about and that they have really learned much about who they are and our political life from reading them.

Most impressively, there was plenty of evidence in particular cases that the student actually enjoyed writing the paper and displaying his or her wisdom for my benefit. Clever turns of phrases and witty asides weren’t uncommon. Neither were pointed shots directed toward making clear his or her disagreement with me.

It’s not true in most cases that students—out of an exaggerated intellectual humility—surrendered their critical spirit when reading great thinkers. In a case or two, the student dissented from Locke or Rousseau for not sharing today’s views concerning class and gender and the environment. More common—and pretty reasonable, was the objection that Hobbes’s and Rousseau’s understanding of the natural condition of members of our species doesn’t square with what studies show concerning evolutionary psychology. It’s just not true, the argument goes, that it makes any sense to say that we’re free and self-centered individuals by nature. But a couple of students defended Locke’s “capitalist” view of property from Rousseau’s objection that what amounts to the historical invention of property is the source of most of our inequality and misery. And they did so despite my effort in class to get them moved by the moral force of Rousseau’s objection.

Most common (although still a minority view) was basically a Christian objection to the dogmatic atheism of these three thinkers. Hobbes, for example, says that our miserable natural condition isn’t our fault. That’s just the way we are by nature. A more plausible explanation, however, might be the irreducible reality of sin. The Christian explanation of who we are as free persons might make more sense that Rousseau’s account of human freedom as an inexplicable cosmic accident. And finally, it’s the tendency of modern and liberal thinkers to be weak on personal love, on those human experiences that can’t be reduced to contract and consent but which make life worth living. I alluded to such objections in class, but didn’t make a big deal out of them. But a few of the students did, in one case with attention to Hobbes’s and Locke’s butchering of particular Biblical passages.

In my class in contemporary political thought (which meets once a week for over two hours), I require weekly papers on the reading. That really does insure that most of the students do most or all of the reading each week and everyone read some of it—which has included Nietzsche, Leo Strauss, Havel, Solzhenitsyn, Hannah Arendt, Pierre Manent, Chantal Delsol, and others. Many and sometimes most of the weekly papers are by authors who actually wanted to remember that they learned something crucial, and that experience rarely keeps them from being critical and even playing the texts off against each other.

One of the students—Ian Taylor Nugent—cited this from Walker Percy:

The self of the twentieth century is a voracious nought which expands like the feeding vacuole of an amoeba seeking to nourish and inform its own nothingness by ingesting new objects in the world but, like a vacuole, only succeeds in emptying them out.

What’s great about that quote, of course, is that it’s over-the-top even by Percy standards, and it obviously samples Nietzsche. It also calls to mind my “teaching method” of telling students to make their own key phrases in modern texts by thinking of them as “hipster” names for the latest garage band (VORACIOUS NOUGHT—yes, you can use it, as long as you give Ian credit for calling it to your attention). Has the twentieth century’s self-understanding really been basically a “voracious nought” emptying particular selves of all human content and leaving freedom as just another word for nothing left to lose? Or, as we read from Solzhenitsyn, is there a “howl of existentialism” just beneath the surface of all our happy-talk pragmatism?

It also samples Heidegger, who was a huge influence on Percy and whom some of the nerds are reading in another class. So Kristian Canler comments: “Oh yeah let’s all get our Heidegger on.”

To which Ian responds: “Heidegger has nothing on Mr. Percy. You can’t beat the Southern Stoics.”

Kristian’s retort: “#Faulkner #ouch.” I’m not sure I understand that, but I’m not fluent in Twitter pithiness.

So I try to bring the discussion home: “You can’t beat a Southern Stoic who becomes a Catholic, partly by reading Heidegger.” My big point is that my Protestant and skeptical students, who really don’t take much pride in being Southern, are ready to really think about (and, of course, contest) that seemingly strange conclusion. I’m sticking with my thought that the pinnacle of American political thought is the indigenous American, Southern, Catholic Thomism of Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor. (You say O’Connor was innocent of Heidegger? Well, check out her “Good Country People.”)

But America is good, it seems, in part because it can find places for Southerners, especially Southern Stoics (think the novelist Tom Wolfe, Atticus Finch, Admiral Stockdale, Navy SEALS, and the proud men of Morehouse), Catholics (as, to begin with, the best organized in countercultural thought and action of our large institutional religions), and Heideggerians (who are right, after all, about the American propensity for inauthentically deferring to the “they” of public opinion and scientific expertise). Neither liberalism nor the liberal arts have quite been swallowed by the voracious nought, as my students daily remind me.

Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College in Georgia. His previous articles can be found here.

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Articles by Peter Lawler

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