What Reading Lists Reveal, and What They Don’t

True or false: teaching a book means that you fully endorse its contents and perspective.

Anyone who has taught a class knows that the answer is false. It’s possible to teach a text as a topic rather than as an authority: “Here’s what so-and-so thinks, and here’s why it’s wrong.” In fact, one of my favorite teaching techniques was to teach texts that opposed each other, whether explicitly or implicitly. The idea was to help students understand that texts make arguments and that they’re entitled to evaluate those arguments for themselves.

Even texts with which one is broadly sympathetic can be terribly flawed in various ways. Noting those flaws, and placing them in a larger context, is a terrific critical thinking exercise.

Getting students to the point at which they could offer sympathetic critiques was always the hardest part. Bashing someone is easy. Finding ways for them to make a decent but flawed argument better is much harder.

In the context of introductory political theory classes, for instance, I’ve taught Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Burke, Mill, Marx, Nietzsche, Du Bois and Oakeshott, among others. They did not all agree with each other, at all. Locke saw the state as a guarantor of rights; Nietzsche would have seen the existence of “rights” as a failure on the part of the strong. Aristotle took as a natural fact that some people can only be laborers and that they had no role to play in politics; Du Bois disagreed. Burke saw deference to the queen as essential to French society; Marx wasn’t really into deference to royalty.

It goes on from there. A given class might include readings in monarchism, anarchism, various separatisms, feminism, progressivism, libertarianism and even pragmatism. I always enjoyed pointing out moments in arguments that contemporary readers might find jarring. For instance, Locke endorsed religious liberty for everyone except atheists and Catholics. To a modern American reader, that may seem arbitrary, but in the context of England in the 1680s, it landed differently. (He feared allegiance to a “foreign prince,” by which he meant the pope. That argument survived into the 1960s, when JFK ran for president and was confronted with the question of divided loyalty.)

I bring this up to illustrate that assuming that a reading list offers a direct reflection of a given instructor’s politics is silly. It’s just silly. To agree with every perspective outlined above, you’d have to be either confused or insane. They don’t agree with each other. That’s the point of assigning them. If everyone agreed, you could just assign one book and be done with it. That’s not how scholarship works.

Florida’s latest foray into mob-based censorship, SB 7044, requires that all reading lists and syllabi for courses at public colleges in the state be posted at least 45 days in advance and that they be retained for at least five years. It further requires that they be easily searchable by anybody and sorted by author, class and instructor. The assumption the underlying law, I suspect, is that you can smoke out the liberals by looking up authors to which someone on Fox News took exception. Do a quick search for, say, Ibram X. Kendi, fire everyone who taught him and then gear up for next week’s outrage. Done and done.

Aside from the egregious First Amendment violation, the dubious of wisdom riling up angry mobs and the sheer impracticality of it from a staffing perspective—all of which are fatal objects—there’s an assumption that the very presence of a text constitutes its endorsement.

It does not. It simply does not.

Academic freedom matters not only because it protects people who turn out to have been right. It also allows the space for students to engage with—and often to oppose—different schools of thought in the course of developing their own. It’s the same logic behind teaching music students the works of Bach and Beethoven. We don’t expect them to write music in those styles (which differ from each other). We expect them to develop their own styles more deeply by engaging with what has come before. Sometimes that involves exploring ideas very different from their own. It certainly involves learning to listen before attacking.

The sheer scope of the bill suggests that it’s an exercise in bad faith. An instructor has no way of knowing that someone won’t come along three years later, do a search and haul them before a committee. That’s likely the point. Florida’s crowdsourcing of enforcement is a literal confirmation of Neil Postman’s line that Big Brother is us, watching. And as Michel Foucault noted in a book that would probably make somebody’s list, if you don’t know when you’re being watched, you start to watch yourself.

Academic freedom is too important to be treated this way.

This bill is a direct assault on higher education, based on a fundamental mistake. It is, in fact, possible to teach a book as a flawed object. Much like this bill.

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