O' My Fruitless Design*
I began teaching a sophomore honors section this fall, and it's got me all jumpy and nervous. I still don't understand how the texts go together despite staring at them all summer. Here's the reading list:
- Plato, The Apology and Crito.
- Sophocles, Antigone.
- Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origins of Inequality.
- Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.
- Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth.
- John Stuart Mill, On Liberty.
- George Orwell, 1984.
- Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents.
- William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet.
- Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience.
- John Locke, Second Treatise on Civil Government.
- Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
- Assorted authors, The Communist Manifesto and other Revolutionary Writings.
I've never before taught Locke, Mill, Wollstonecraft or Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents. I'm beginning to feel as though the other texts are lifelines. My problem is that I never know exactly how to teach a course until the second or third time. There's nothing I can do about it now, though. I just have to stink it up and pray to the teaching gods for inspiration. Contrast that with my senior capstone, a course where I can do improvisational riffs with utter serenity because I always know were I am going.
Today was a good day. Third day in and we manged to have a meaty discussion about Antigone. I wrote out six broad questions and we discussed them one by one. One of our more lively exchanges resulted from the following:
The British novelist E. M. Forster once said, “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” Antigone puts her private familial relationship above the state. Creon argues early on that “whoever places a relative above the good of his own country, he is nothing.” Where do you fall on this issue? A politician who favored his or her own family with jobs or perks would be charged with corruption. Why can't we call Forster’s statement and Antigone's actions equally corrupt?
My students place a high value on family and friends. I don't think they had ever considered that one's loyalty to family could conflict with one's loyalty to the state. When I threw out this question, one actually said aloud, "Wow." I may feel jumpy and unsure how the course will go, but that was a good sign. I can live on a "wow" for at least a week.
* A line from Creon's recognition scene.