Friday, November 10, 2006

Required Reading

When selecting the works that students are to read and be examined on, the important thing is not just that the books be worth reading and rereading but that this reading may safely be interferred with by teaching. Imagine students who are predisposed by interest and talent to enjoy Hamlet, Don Quixote, Ulysses, A la recherche du temps perdu, Sein und Zeit, and Philosophische Untersuchungen. Imagine, next, that these students are given sufficient time to read them; that is, imagine that they are not pestered by an overwrought curriculum to also read a bunch of other perfectly good books. We will pester them only about those six books, which are of course inexhaustible. If their sense of literature (their mastery of grammar) is improved by reading something else, I want to suggest, it will show in their reading of these core six works. We may suggest they go and read Woolf or Augustine or Confucius but we are not to ask them directly to prove that they have done so. Instead we may ask them what they now think of "the relationship between sensation and memories" (Proust) or "Dasein's own temporality as ecstatically stretched along" (Heidegger). Likewise, we may want them to understand Hegel's philosophy of history but we are only to lecture them about the connections between, say, the fair maidens of the Quixote and the sad masons of the Investigations. This approach may appeal mainly to a certain kind of mind; but are such minds really to have no place to improve themselves?

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