Responding to complaints about not reading enough dead white guys by using the work of a dead white guy:

In the last issue of the Trinitonian there was a column bemoaning how the Pathways curriculum does not have a required cluster for “great books,” namely ones by Plato and Shakespeare. As if, in the 4,000 years of literary history, the only “great” authors are two European men who lived 1,000 years apart, spoke different languages, and one — Plato — would probably regard the other — Shakespeare — as an illiterate barbarian.

I have seen similar complaints before. Usually, these complain that schools are not teaching an uncritical appreciation of a canon composed of rather homogenous authors.

I am not saying Plato or Shakespeare have nothing important to say. But, I believe it is naïve to claim that a good education, a good life, requires reading a canon of dead white men.

If you do not believe me and think I am a soulless postmodernist, then do not listen to me. Listen instead to a dead white guy.

Michel de Montaigne was a sixteenth-century French philosopher who wrote the essay — blame him for all your woes — titled “Apology for Raimond Sebond.” Montaigne plainly states: “But as to effects, a thousand little countrywomen have lived lives more equal, more sweet, and constant than [Cicero].”

Montaigne’s point in his essay is that while book-learning is useful, it can be valued too highly. At times we must remember that despite all the pomp and pretension we give to Cicero, Plato and Shakespeare there are people who have lived sweet, content and fulfilled lives that have never read a dialogue of Plato or seen a play by Shakespeare.

So, before complaining about how there are no courses requiring the reading of dead white men, listen to this dead white man and learn to be wary of being too pretentious about book learning.


  1. Hi Carl,
    Pleasure to read your comments. Plus, I got Shakespeare and the Greeks in high school. It seemed pretty prescibed, including memorizing a couple of pages of a Shakespeare soliloquy. In college as a French major, I read and wrote about French writers and philosophers. That made philosophy and art history so much more complete, which could be true with a background in any second language. I suppose if one somehow missed Shakespeare in high school, one could do a major or minor in English and bone up on it?

    Latino American and Chinese literature would seem to be really well-rounding if you had a strong English base coming out of high school. Canadian literature, too. So much we should learn about ourselves and others. I must say that for me, Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Huis Clos” and Samuel Beckett’s “En attendant Godot,” were particularly eye-opening, no pun intented, and exciting to read and write about in French. I felt my education had come full circle that last year, and that I finally got what I had come there to do. I left Trinity eager to learn more about everything, perhaps except calculus, but the history of mathematics is fascinating, too. T

    My references are dead white guys, too, so I don’t think I’ve helped in that way. Simone de Beauvoir, anyone? Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Tayari Jones, Ta-Nehisi Coates. Gabriel Garcia Marques.


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