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Schopenhauer and the Underserved Minority Student.
Schopenhauer and the Underserved Minority Student.

Editorís Note: The following paper was presented at the First Annual Great Books Foundation National Conference

Why Students Dig Schopenhauer in the Age of Trash Triumphant
By Bruce Gans

For the better part of twenty years I have insisted upon teaching the Great Books at two urban community colleges. By now, I have taught Great Books materials to several thousand people, the vast majority of whom have been minimally educated and almost culturally illiterate. The students are Hispanic, African American, Eastern European and Near and Far Eastern immigrants, working class ethnic Americans, armed service veterans, police and fire department staff, the elderly, divorced and never married mothers, widows and widowers, ex gang bangers, ex drug abusers, an occasional ex-prostitute and convicted criminal, and middle class college students taking a class for the summer.

About three years ago I founded a Great Books Curriculum at Wright College, where I now teach, which today serves about 900 of these students every semester. Because of who we teach and how many, and above all what we teach them, the program has earned front page attention in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, a major piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education a laudatory editorial in the New York Post and has served as the inspiration for a "national summer" initiated by the Johnson Foundation. Student evaluations and feedback has been overwhelmingly laudatory, which is more significant.

Because of these things, I have been asked to discuss in some particular how the Great Books are taught at Wright, by me at any rate, and why it works so well.

Since the philosophy that the program grows out of is crucial to understanding the teaching and the student enthusiasm for these materials, permit me to briefly lay these things before you and then discuss how a specific text by Arthur Schopenhauer is taught.

The programís keystone is that it is of the highest importance what a student reads in college classes. The program takes as a given that if it matters what science you study in a medial school class, if it matters what information you use to make an investment or buy a house or ask someone to marry you or take a job, if it matters in every other area of serious study, where truth and profundity of insight are at a premium, it matters that students read the Great Books. For the Great Books Curriculum faculty have found, like multitudes before them, that great literature, that the best that has been thought and said, comes closer than anything else to being a mirror of wisdom that reflects with the greatest precision the meaning of human existence and so illuminates for us the greatest truths about it.

The Great Books Curriculum was also created because it saw its mission as fundamental to what a college education has been and ought to be and moreover what a college education is unique in offering: exposure to the most powerful, profound and direct expression of the human psyche. The unique function of a college education is that it is the one place where the meaning of life can be extensively explored and questioned, Post adolescents, after all, are as any parent or psychiatrist will tell you, vitally concerned about such questions. So too, I can assure you from professional experience, are working adults.

The Great Books Curriculum is offered because its members believe college faculty are a unique asset to a society because they have a unique knowledge and talent that stems from having spent a lifetime of effort enthusiastically and lovingly exploring, mastering and synthesizing the canon. No disaffected lawyer drafted into an English Department classroom to fill a composition teacher shortage can ever offer students what Great Books faculty can - a unique opportunity to gain patient help with and loving guidance to an understanding and appreciation of the rewards contained in time tested, enduring masterpieces.

The Wright College Great Books program also stresses that the existence of the canon must be brought to a studentís attention because the canon, per se is a miracle of meritocracy, individual achievement and ethical independence of the highest order, values fundamental for every human beingís personal code. Great Books Curriculum sees the canon as supremely challenging, inspiring monuments of human wisdom and aesthetic delight that can serve each student as a lifelong source of spiritual enrichment and sustenance.

Moreover, despite what you might have been told, the materials from the Great Books are selected on the basis of their enduring importance to mankind. They are drawn entirely on the basis of merit from all over the world with membership open to anyone from every historical period save for the immediate one. The canon may not be infallible or immutable - nothing on earth is - but its founding principle is to come as near to an ideal meritocracy as possible out of the most altruistic and disinterested criteria for inclusion.

Lastly, the Great Books Curriculum faculty hold that these works are not taught because the student population is or is not a non tradition one. The studentís social class, ethnicity, gender, religion, age and so forth, in the context of the college classroom, is essentially at most secondary if not entirely irrelevant. These matters are their own business. For purposes of the classroom they are simply fellow human beings who have gathered together to earn a skill and to contemplate universal truth.

Hence one reason the Great Books Curriculum succeeds is because it is founded on the more accurate picture of human beings, that an uneducated person, experiences his life, in fact, as a human being first. It correctly assumes that an uneducated person finds it just as inspiring and crucial as an educated person does to learn about and attempt to personally apply, mankindís greatest insights into the great riddle of the human condition. Our students feel they are getting something important out of college when they read works communicating the apex of wisdom and beauty and in the process gain the skills to understand such books.

This can all be seen in the study of two essays "The Wisdom of Life" and "Counsels and Maxims" from Arthur Schopenhauer massive two volume Parerga and Prolegomena published in 1851.

Schopenhauer discusses in these long essays how a person can become happy, which of course I mention to the class by way of introduction. But my first job is to unburden them of the main obstacles to their understanding which are formidable but fortunately quite superficial and ultimately feeble. Hence I tell them briefly how to pronounce "Schopenhauer" discuss when and where he lived, what his overall contribution was and how it served as a corrective to Victorian optimism.

Incidentally, I may also mention in passing that Schopenhauer was an appalling anti-Semite and misogynist and so obviously a worthless thinker in those areas which goes to show that to expose ourselves to supreme wisdom we often have to close our ears to foolishness just as we ignore Michael Jordanís lack of proficiency in baseball, golf and professional team management which do not have any direct bearing on his unique brilliance as a basketball player.

If there is a picture available to Schopenhauer, I will show them this draw attention to his tight lipped scowl to let the students know that it is often one thing to possess the key to happiness, and another to be capable of opening a door with it. It is also a means of kindling their curiosity by speaking however obliquely to their own difficulties in achieving by showing how problematic the wish is to fulfill.

To orient them on the problem Schopenhauer addresses I present briefly the case of Marilyn Monroe who I explain was considered the most beautiful and sexually desirable woman in the world as well as being one of the most famous and wealthy.

Marilyn Monroe, I tell them, had reached the reached the seventh level of happiness according to the sources of metaphysical wisdom upon which my students more or less exclusively gaze--People Magazine, romance novels, Jerry Springer, fashion magazines, network sitcoms, and pro sports broadcasts. Marilyn Monroe had what both my students and just about most everyone in the world considers the apex of happiness; supreme beauty, universal adulation universal fame and vast wealth. So how is it that she committed suicide at the age of 36? Is it possible that beauty, wealth, popularity, celebrity, donít really bring the happiness we all dream of?

I will next bring to their attention a television show with which they are all familiar VH1ís "Behind the Music." This is a television program that has the same plot every week that merely substitutes different faces and names every seven days. It is more or less a reiteration of the Marilyn Monroe story only focusing on rock and roll stars.

Since like practically everyone else, my students are neither wealthy nor celebrities nor specimens of physical perfection, they come to the classroom often with the conviction that true happiness is and shall ever thus been beyond their reach.

Schopenhauer is assigned in my Research and Rhetoric class, English 102. Students write an in class essay evaluating, by their own lights, using a combination of logic, facts, examples, observation and personal feelings, the soundness or fallaciousness of one or more of Schopenhauer arguments. Normally four authors are assigned each semester from whom a student must choose to write a research paper and a fair number choose Schopenhauer. They are strongly encouraged to start their research with the Syntopicon which as you know contains extracts of Great Books authors who have written on the question of happiness. This many of them do along with internet searches and other reading from various secondary sources and reference texts.

Before they are asked to write a syllable on Schopenhauer, however, I spend one and often two entire class periods on a close reading of the text, performing as much explication as they need and encouraging as much focused class discussion as possible.

Here is a sampling of the passages we discuss:

Most men set the utmost value precisely on what other people think, and are more concerned about it than about what goes on in their own consciousness, which is the thing most immediately and directly present to them. They reverse the natural order - regarding the opinions of others as real existence and their own consciousness as something shadowy, making the derivative and secondary into the principle. The truth is that the value we set upon the opinion of others and our constant endeavor in respect of it are each quite out of proportion to any result we may reasonably hope to attain.

It is the possession of a great heart or a great head and not the mere fame of it which is worth having and conducive to happiness. Not fame but that which deserves to be famous is what a man should hold in esteem. This is, as it were, the true underlying substance. Fame is only an accident, affecting its subject chiefly as a kind of external symptom.

"What a man is contributes much more to his happiness than what he has. Since everything which exists or happens for a man exists only in his consciousness and happens for it alone, the most essential thing for a man is the constitution of this consciousness, which is in most cases far more important than the circumstances which go to form its contents.

"This is why Aristotle says: It is not wealth but character that lasts. For fortune can always change but not character. The one thing that makes us the most directly happy is a genial flow of good spirits. For this excellent quality is its own immediate reward. The man who is cheerful has always a good reason for being so - the fact, namely, that he is so. If you know anyone and you want to know if he is happy ask if he is cheerful and genial - and if he is, what does it matter whether he is young or old straight of humpbacked, poor or rich? He is happy. A good happy temperate gentle character can be happy in needy circumstances while a covetous envious and malicious man even if he be the richest in the world, goes miserable.

"Men of any worth or value soon come to see that they are in the hands of Fate and gratefully submit to be molded by its teachings. They recognize that the fruit of life is experience and not happiness; they become accustomed and content to exchange hope for insight and in the end they can say with Patriarch that all they care for is to learn.

The highest the most varied and lasting pleasure are those of the mind, however much our youth may deceive us on this point...An intellectual man in complete solitude has excellent entertainment in his own thoughts and fancies while no amount or diversity of social pleasure theaters excursions and amusements can ward off boredom from a dullard. All the pride and pleasure in the world, mirrored in the dull consciousness of a fool, is poor indeed compared with the imagination of a Cervantes writing in his miserable prison.

"Card games are invented to ally boredom and if there is nothing else to be done a man will twirl his thumbs or beat the devilís tattoo as a welcome substitute for exercising his brains Hence in all countries the chief occupation of society is card playing Because are bankrupt in thought, because people have no thoughts to deal in, they deal in cards and try and win anotherís money. Idiots!

The discussions that grow out of such material are productive and lively. Student as often as not arrive in class insulted and angry at reading such uninhibited disparagement of card playing and its devotees, among whom they consider themselves members in good standing. They often indignantly excoriate and reject Schopenhauer placing intellectual powers at the summit of the desirable, a key to happiness. They in fact feel personally insulted because often they come to the class defining themselves as incapable of intellectual pursuits. They argue vigorously that the intellect is merely one of many paths to happiness.

Needless to say, this is fine. They have more respect for intellectual matters than they admit, for they would not otherwise be in a college classroom. As they gain intellectual skills over the semester their attitudes in this regard often change incrementally.

It is also fine because they have succeeded in having a very valuable experience which the Wright College Great Books Curriculum would argue is a unique benefit of a college education; that of surviving a challenge to some of their own basic assumptions which as Socrates points out is an indispensable ability to have to gain true wisdom. Here the Great Books Curriculum has contributed to their capacity to look at themselves with more probity. By examining a masterpiece they have examined themselves about something that is of fundamental importance in their lives.

But the Schopenhauer passage does them a far more crucial service than this. Schopenhauer argues that the reality is that the possibility of experiencing happiness is within everybodyís reach. Happiness, Schopenhauer eloquently demonstrates, is democratic, not the exclusive property of the elite, the celebrities, the winners in unfairly constructed societies. Everybody qualifies to be happy. It is within everyoneís reach regardless of oneís income, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, physical beauty or lack of it, of oneís reputation or lack of one This comes to them as a revelation, a source of hope it stimulates them to reevaluate their self esteem upward, and to place its valuation on a more sound basis. It may even influence their values in the future, though that is neither our concern nor our goal. Our goal is to have them understand the best that has been thought and said and have the chance to use it or dismiss it as they personally see fit.

I often underscore this point by asking the class who they think is happier - a Phillippino immigrant nurse or a movie star? After practically everyone chooses the movie star I then ask them to track how much happiness is actually experienced emotionally in the course of a day by a nurse who wakes up next to a husband she loves, prepares for school children she loves, goes to a hospital doing work she enjoys, working with more people she likes than dislikes, and coming home and having dinner with her family. I then compare this to a day on the set with Barbara Streisand or Jack Nicholson.

I will subsequently often assign Old Man and the Sea which is an illustration of these great truths so that they can see its demonstration in practice and to show that universal truth exists beyond any particular epoch. If Maslow is right about mankindís hierarchy of needs, then our Great Books students not only learned to write an essay, been exposed to work of very high eloquence and logic which they have the satisfaction of mastering, but their highest spiritual needs have been stimulated and addressed.

This is why, in conclusion, I cannot imagine a more useful and interesting and rewarding way to spend in the classroom a studentís energy and time - or your own.


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