I am reminded of that now, as I am in the process of finalizing my textbook orders for the fall semester. Because of the sorts of courses that I teach, I regularly fret over the books that I assign for my courses, many of which have provocative titles and/or cover art (not to mention actual ideas!). I have a recurring nightmare in which one of my students' mom or dad is visiting during Parents Weekend, strolling through the college bookstore and, upon seeing what books I have assigned, decides to speed-dial David Horowitz on the cell-phone to report me in violation of the Academic Bill of Rights.
[Insert frightened shiver here.]
So, as another public service-- because what's a blog for, after all, if not to help the people?-- here are some of the books that I have considered adopting (or actually dared to adopt) that may be more trouble than they're worth. (But probably not.) I'll do this the same way we did before, that is, I'll give you the "intended meaning" behind the adoption of the text first, followed by the possible thoughts of the Putative Defenders of Academic Freedom.
We'll start with the obvious:
The History of Sexuality, Volume 1 by Michel Foucault
WHAT I INTENDED: Foucault is one of the most important philosophers of the 20th C., and this is an eminently accessible introduction to his work. Students who have no theoretical basis for thinking about "power" or "discourse" can get their feet wet here, as well as learn a thing or two about the history of our socially-constructed categories of sexuality. Also, as an added bonus, The History of Sexuality serves as a kind of primer for psychoanalysis, gender studies, queer theory, and feminism-- some of the major "alternative" movements in contemporary philosophy.
WHAT THEY THINK: Everyone knows that teaching sex in schools leads to promiscuity among students. What's next? Is she going to hand out condoms on the first day instead of a syllabus?! (And, Mother, did she just use both "queer" AND "theory" in the same sentence?)
The Anti-Christ by Friedrich Nietzsche
WHAT I INTENDED: Although this is not one of my favorite texts by Nietzsche, I think it is an important one to look at in order to have some point of comparison between Nietzsche's more rigorously philosophical works (like Genealogy of Morals) and the largely polemical texts like this one. Despite his polemics, however, there are several points in The Anti-Christ where we can see Nietzsche's abiding and complicated, even if reluctant, respect for the figure of Jesus and some of the values of Christianity.
WHAT THEY THINK: Clearly our child is headed directly to hell.
WHAT THEY THINK: Who hates democracy? Oh, the guy is French. Shoulda known. What do the French know from democracy, anyway?
Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, The Cold War and the Roots of Terror by Mahmood Mamdani
WHAT I INTENDED: This is the first book that everyone should have read after 9/11. Mamdani offers the clearest and most convincing counter-discourse to the (Samuel) Huntington-esque "clash of civilizations" story that has unfortunately appealed to so many people in power. By carefully tracing the U.S. Cold War and post-Cold-War policy of engaging in "proxy wars," Mamdani shows not only how terrorism came to be what it is now, but also how we are all implicated in that development.
WHAT THEY THINK: Who ever heard of a "good" muslim?
The Assault on Reason by Al Gore
WHAT I INTENDED: After reading Gore's text, I now believe that he really missed his calling. This is a sober, informed, well-argued and intelligent treatment of the dangers to any political body that gives up on the power of a "well-informed citizenry." It's hard to imagine that there are many people alive today who have had more of an inside and up-front perspective on the changes in our country (and our world) over the last three decades than Al Gore. For cynics, this text will inspire hope again. For dreamers, this text is a healthy dose of realism. But for everyone, Gore's text will serve as a reminder that rational deliberation is one of the first virtues of civic responsibility.
WHAT THEY THINK: Jeez. He's still around? If the profs here are determined to assign a book by a Nobel Peace Prize winner, they should pick somebody good... like de Klerk.
The Al Qaeda Reader by Raymond Ibrahim (Ed.)
WHAT I INTENDED: If Al Qaeda is really our "enemy," then engaged intellectuals should acknowledge that the enemy you know is better than the enemy you don't know. Most of us know very little about Al Qaeda outside of the things we hear on television, so reading this book will be an exercise in becoming (what Gore called) a "well-informed citizenry." Students will be surprised when they read some of the actual texts of Islamic "extremism," which are not totally irrational (as we are often told) and many of which are grounded (however shakily) in sources of traditional Islamic theology. Most importantly, these texts give us a glimpse into the power of persuasive political rhetoric, the cornerstone of mass movements throughout history.
WHAT THEY THINK: It's time to heighten the DEFCON status! Alert the extraordinary rendition brigade! Get Horowitz on the phone! NOW!
As before, I welcome your contributions to this list. And as before, please provide your own renderings of the "what I intended" and "what they think" categories.