The Daily Beast, a Web site, recently asked “some of the nation’s leading academics and authors” to name “the essential book to read before you graduate.”
From Homer to Hamlet to Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” the responses were a nearly predictable selection from the Western canon. Populated by 12 dead white men and two African-American authors (one living), it offered students a narrow, uninspiring perspective from which to view an increasingly complex, interdependent and dangerous world.
That’s not to say the choices were without value but they are not the only wisdom I would be arming new graduates with as they entered a competitive global environment.
We need a Global canon — a way of knowing what The Other thinks.
The academics and authors invited graduates into a narrow, parochial, well-tended garden, while outside the gate thrives a vibrant, often-confusing, pluralistic, intellectual world that we rarely see and rarely read.
And we are all the poorer for it.
For example, one of the “leading academics and authors” posits that James Joyce’s “Ulysses” is “without doubt the seminal novel of the 20th century.” I posit that Tayeb Salih’s post-colonial novel “Season of Migration to the North” is an equally seminal novel of the 20th century.
Students need to know what nurtures the non-Western world.
Students need to know what they don’t know.
They need to know black swans.
In 2007, Lebanese author Nassim Nicholas Taleb published “The Black Swan,” an examination of rare and unforeseen events, their effect on us, and our tendency to retroactively find simple explanations for them.
Black swans change our lives in ways that are unpredictable: World War I, computers, Google and 9/11 are examples given by Taleb — events that were barely predictable but that changed our lives in unforeseen ways. Taleb challenges “our blindness with respect to randomness, particularly large deviations.”
I want students to be open to randomness, to welcome deviations from life’s canons, to embrace black swans as they appear and overcome the challenges they will encounter.
A student whom I know well had a black swan moment with her English teacher over Shakespeare’s “Othello.” In class, while discussing themes, the student said she would like to examine the racism and prejudice in Othello — the “malignant and a turbaned Turk.” A bit taken aback, the teacher asked the other students if they were interested in such a topic. No one supported the young student, and the class moved on.
Othello was studied and completed that term with racism never having been discussed.
That student now knows what she didn’t know.
Today, while I am not as cynical as Gary Snyder, who wrote, “Three-fourths of philosophy and literature is the talk of people trying to convince themselves that they really like the cage they were tricked into entering,” I believe that often people make choices not because of what they truly believe but because of how they believe people will judge their choices — and often the choice is intellectual bling.
I believe the canon is such a cage, and is very hard to escape.
I want prospective graduates to know Palestinian Edward Said’s “Orientalism,” which examines the “subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arabo-Islamic peoples and their culture,” prejudices often used to justify Western colonial and imperial exploitation, domination, invasion and occupation — and not just on Arabs and Muslims.
I want prospective graduates to know Portuguese author Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” which critically examines relationships between what he defines as “the colonizer” and “the colonized.”
I want prospective graduates to read Alan Paton’s “Cry the Beloved Country,” and learn about South Africa through black Anglican priest Stephen Kumalo’s search for his son, Absalom, in Johannesburg.
Gandhi’s embrace of non-violence was a black swan moment.
“One has to speak out and stand up for one’s convictions. Inaction at a time of conflagration is inexcusable,” said Mahatma Gandhi.
Neither Nelson Mandela nor Martin Luther King Jr. nor Vaclev Havel would have been as inspired had it not been for Gandhi’s example.
I want them to know that action and non-cooperation is central to non-violence.
That to resist injustice is central to living a just life.
I don’t want students to learn to make choices on the basis of some cultural mythology that seemingly elevates some peoples above others — on mythologies that often reinforce cultural, sexist and racist prejudices, resulting in ignorance and indifference about The Other.
They need to know Sufi poets like Hafiz, Rumi and Rabia of Basra.
I want them to move beyond illusions.
Nelson Mandela, at a dedication of the Gandhi Memorial in Pietermaritzburg in 1993, invoked, “Unity, so that our children can walk in peace and learn in purpose. Unity, so that our aged can live out the rest of their lives in dignity.”
Unity, so our children can walk in peace, learn in purpose and live lives in dignity.
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.