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When remembering Martin Luther King, we should remember his identity as a scholar and professor—and the role that liberal education played in his life.

Today we commemorate the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his leadership of the civil rights movement. We might remember him leading the Montgomery bus boycott, delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech, and opposing the Vietnam War.

We don’t always as quickly remember that King was also a scholar and a sometime college professor, for whom faith and ideas mattered profoundly.

King taught at his alma mater, Morehouse College. We have King’s list of philosophers and texts for his 1962 seminar on social philosophy. It is a “Plato to NATO” course, surveying the philosophers who laid the intellectual foundation for our social and political institutions and our ideals of freedom and equality.

The exam prompts King set for students include:

  • State and evaluate Aristotle’s theory of slavery.
  • State the principles of Rousseau and Locke which most influenced the formulators of Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.
  • Appraise the Student Movement in its practice of law-breaking in light of Aquinas’ Doctrine of Law.

These were hardly abstract questions for the young men in King’s Morehouse classroom. They were living with the legacy of American slavery, which slaveholders had attempted to justify by invoking Aristotle. Some students were active in the movement to press the country to live up to the principles of liberty and equality articulated in its founding documents.

Only 15 months after setting this exam, King provided his own statement about how Aquinas’ Doctrine of Law justified civil disobedience. Jailed for his leadership of the Birmingham campaign, King penned his Letter from Birmingham Jail:

One may well ask, “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. … To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. … Thus it is that I can urge men to disobey segregation ordinances, for such ordinances are morally wrong.

King’s example of having his actions and life informed by canonical books—books he assigned to his students—matters very much today. Many doubt the relevance of such books for contemporary undergraduates, especially because more students come from demographic groups historically not well represented in the traditional curriculum. Colleges and universities, it is said, must offer students books by authors who share their race, ethnicity, sex, and sexual orientation.

King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail shows how important canonical books were to his thinking and his actions to advance civil rights. In this letter, King cites not only Aquinas but the Old Testament, Socrates, the Letter of Paul to the Galatians, Augustine, Luther, Jefferson, Lincoln, Martin Buber, T.S. Eliot, and others. He knew these thinkers and their works so thoroughly that he could call to mind their words even away from his library, alone in his jail cell.

Against those who argue that the traditional “great books” curricula do not serve students from historically marginalized communities, others have argued such curricula help equalize the civic playing field. An introduction to these books provides students with access to the ideas and assumptions embodied in our governing institutions and develops the capacity to advance the cause of justice. Howard University classics professor Anika Prather argues that the canon “gave [Black Americans] the words and language to fight for equality.” The late Earl Shorris, founder of the Clement Course in the Humanities for individuals who usually would not have access to higher education, let alone the humanities and liberal arts, pitched his course to prospective students this way:

You’ve been cheated. Rich people learn the humanities; you didn’t. The humanities are a foundation for getting along in the world, for thinking, for learning to reflect on the world instead of just reacting to whatever force is turned against you. I think the humanities are one of the ways to become political, and I don’t mean political in the sense of voting in an election but in the broad sense.

(I wrote more about Shorris and his case for the liberal arts and humanities for Philanthropy Daily here). Most recently, Columbia University professor and past director of its Center for the Core Curriculum, Roosevelt Montás, makes a related argument in his new autobiographical book about the importance of studying classic books:

We do minority students an unconscionable disservice when we steer them away from the traditional liberal arts curriculum… for all students, a Core education serves a leveling function, sharpening their historical awareness of how the world has come to be what it is, giving them a shared vocabulary with which to describe and act on it, and equipping them to communicate with others who bring different backgrounds and perspectives to the conversation.

Even more important than preparing students for acting in their political communities, traditional liberal arts curricula present ideas that allow students to expand their intellectual, psychological, and moral horizons, providing opportunities better to understand themselves and what counts for them as a good life.

Of course, the range of books and thinkers taught in liberal arts and core curricula needed to be broadened from what it was a generation or more ago; as Montás remarks, “courses that respond to and reflect the diversity of the student body are essential offerings.” A Plato to NATO survey course today might well include thinkers such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Frederick Douglass, and James Baldwin, and be much the better for it.

King, in his Morehouse seminar reading list and his Letter from Birmingham Jail, reminds us that ideas matter—and that transformative civic actions are informed by ideas and books. As we celebrate his legacy on this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, this aspect of that legacy is important to cherish.

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