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Great Books and Diversity in Education


In the fall of 1961, Martin Luther King, Jr. taught his only college class, which he gave the unremarkable name of “Social Philosophy I.” Today, we would recognize the course as a “great books” seminar in Western political philosophy. The reading list ran from Plato’s Republic through Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics , followed by works from Augustine, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel, and ending with “the Utilitarians,” Bentham and Mill. That King called the course “Social Philosophy I” suggests he had a sequel in mind, perhaps one that included readings that spoke more directly to the struggle for civil rights that he and his students at Morehouse were engaged in. What modern thinkers might have appeared on the list? Gandhi, almost certainly, and perhaps Marx and Nietzsche, as well as Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. DuBois.

King never did go back to Morehouse for his sequel. Yet his decision to teach the classics of Western political thought as a way to engage urgent contemporary issues is instructive. Like any professor today who wants to introduce students to the sources of our political and cultural order, King found himself confined to a set of figures far from […]

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