Ideas as kin

In a recent newsletter about the movement to dismantle the classics, Andrew Sullivan wrote about Martin Luther King Jr.’s syllabus for a seminar he was teaching at Morehouse College in 1962, which included Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Augustine’s City of God—a glimpse of what King believed an educated black man at that time should know.


What King grasped, it seems to me, is the core meaning of a liberal education, the faith that ideas can transcend space and time and culture and race. There are few things more thrilling than to enter a whole new world from another era — and to see the resilient ideas, texts, and arguments that have lasted (or not) through the millennia. These ideas are bound up, of course, in the specific context and cultures of the past, and it is important to disentangle the two. But to enter the utterly alien world of the past and discover something intimate and contemporary is one of the great joys of intellectual life.

As Alan Jacobs put it in Breaking Bread with the Dead (one of my favorite books of 2020):

We cannot use the past to love ourselves unless we also learn to love our ancestors. We must see them not as others but as neighbors—and then, ultimately, as kin.

2 responses to “Ideas as kin”

  1. Love this reminder of why these literary doors to the past must stay preserved and accessible on our library and home shelves. The value of travelling those portals for perspective will never diminish! Recently, I have been reading James Baldwin, Wole Soyinka, and Langston Hughes’s volume “Poems from Black Africa”. What those voices have illuminated about today’s world and how I can adjust my interactions with POC had been tremendously rewarding. I have added using Google Earth to virtually visit cultural museums throughout African cities and letting those echoes from the past speak to me afresh. Yep, I’m a white, suburban school teacher and librarian still letting the classics say what they need to me today = priceless. Thanks for posting!

    1. Thanks for this. I remember being knocked out by “The Weary Blues” by Langston Hughes when I read/heard it in college.