By Tom Amarose,|
Associate Professor of English
Two years ago, faculty members began work on the "Common Curriculum" that is being instituted this fall at SPU. We knew from the start that we wanted some common works of literature, art, music and science to be part of these courses, so that all SPU students would be exposed to them. Our hope was that these works would become an "SPU Canon," reflecting the University's core values.
Crowning this hope was the idea that each year a single text could become the basis for a larger discussion, beyond the classroom, of what SPU means to its many community members. Selecting such a work seemed a daunting job. But when Susan Gallagher suggested the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass as this centerpiece, we knew we had what we wanted.
Certainly other books could have served as well. The entire process of selecting works for the Common Curriculum has been one of making almost ridiculously narrow decisions from a banquet of possibilities. But we chose Douglass' Narrative because it has the sparks of many different categories of greatness. It also speaks to many of the values and issues we hope can come into focus through the Common Curriculum.
So how does the Narrative help us determine who we are and what we want to become at SPU? First, through its moving description of a slave who escapes to freedom, the Narrative documents the role that learning plays in the liberation of the body, mind and spirit. Douglass realized early in life that if he wanted to become free, he must learn to read, catching instruction wherever he could.
A persistent theme of the book, however, is the way in which learning makes Douglass not more content but more restless, at times even despairing. Yet it is this restlessness that leads to his ultimate liberation. For Douglass, action based on learning is the only path out of pain and confusion toward intellectual and spiritual freedom. Every learner at SPU must take a similar journey, and we can use the Douglass Narrative as an intense example of the reward that awaits those willing to undertake the struggle.
In addition, Douglass repeatedly shows how the institution of slavery robs slaveowners of higher virtues, such as love and compassion. A promising irony of the Narrative is that, over the course of its telling, slave and slaveowner trade places. Douglass the slave learns what it is to be truly human and to be free, while the slave-owners un-learn their fundamental humanity, becoming enslaved to their own institution. We at SPU might use this lesson to examine the ways that humans are "owned" by social or political structures, and the ways that lead out of such "slavery."
Finally and most powerfully, the Douglass Narrative forces us to confront the difference between nominal and true Christianity. Douglass reveals in gruesome detail the horrible hypocrisy of slaveowners who are nominally Christian, but who see no contradiction in both preaching and whipping on any given Sabbath. While he is at pains to distinguish such "slaveholding religion" from the "pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ," Douglass rails against a society that espouses Christian values yet remains blind to the evils of slaveholding.
We, along with Douglass, ask how could such evil remain invisible? But then, almost immediately, we are forced to ask how many evils in our world we choose to ignore, heedless of the call for biblical justice. That is a question worth posing to our entire community, a question posed by this pre-eminent work in the SPU Canon.
Freshman Year Selections in the "SPU Canon"
The following have been selected as works to be studied in the freshman year courses of the "Common Curriculum":
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, autobiography by Frederick Douglass
Great Expectations, novel by Charles Dickens
Skin of Our Teeth, play by Thornton Wilder
Porgy and Bess, opera by George Gershwin
Sistine Chapel, painting by Michelangelo
The Chosen, novel by Chaim Potok
Imitation of Christ, by Thomas À Kempis
Devotional Classics, by Richard Foster
The Book of Common Prayer