So you think you’re so smart?
Somewhere in one of his novels, David Lodge gave us the game of Humiliation. You know, the one where people who are supposed to have read everything (yes, I’m talking about you people in literature) have to admit to what they haven’t read.
Think Truth or Dare, the Doctoral Edition.
There are lots of Important Books that we don’t read. And I mean those of us in the Reading Business (don’t worry, I’ll run out of capital letters soon), whatever our fields. But there are works that speak with such — what to call it? – continuous urgency, that not to read or have read them cuts a hole where we imagine our brains and hearts to be.
So here’s my confession for today (and my list is long, let me tell you): The Souls of Black Folk, by W.E.B. Du Bois. Du Bois published it in 1903. It’s the famous document in which he enunciated one of the great truths of American modernity: that the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line.
I’m reading it now, for the first time, and with two calendars in my head: one set in 1903, one in 2017. I want to recover, if I can, Du Bois’s sense of immediacy — this was a great mind thinking about race four decades after at least the official abolition of slavery in the United States — while also reading it as a document written today.
I’m not a Du Bois scholar. I’m barely a Du Bois amateur. Yet I’m turning the pages with an electrifying sense of the book’s appositeness to the damaged world of 21st-century America.
“The problem of the color line” may be Du Bois’s most famous phrase, but the essay-chapters of The Souls of Black Folk present us with even more of what teachers and students want, namely, language to think with.
Let me bring up just one phrase: Du Bois’s characterization of America — specifically white America — as “a dusty desert of dollars and smartness.” Two familiar — potentially generative — obsessions, and then that “dusty desert” speaks volumes.
Du Bois’s perception about dollars has lost none of its punch. But smartness? Now that cuts close to the academic bone. Surely smartness is that quality we in universityland prize above everything.
Washington Irving may have given us the phrase “the almighty dollar” in the 1830s. (As far as I know, nobody has deployed the phrase “almighty smartness” — or should.) But those of us who work in education know far too well our own “almighties” — the obsession with measurables and deliverables, with calibrating scores, with winnowing and sifting, even long after the agricultural metaphor has lost its cultural potency.
Du Bois was writing about African-Americans caught then — they are still caught now, as so many other Americans also are — in a place where dollars and smartness converge.
It’s no coincidence that Du Bois, the first African-American to earn a doctorate at Harvard, spoke to the necessity of the humanities and humanistic inquiry.
Whatever it is, “humanistic inquiry” is surely something beyond the literature classroom. It’s a way of positioning oneself in relation to ideas, to people, and to the world, and that means it can happen in any field, from astrophysics, microbiology, and nursing to politics, music, and anthropology.
If you think Du Bois is a historical curiosity, you’re partly right. He wrote of a moment and is a window onto it, for those of us who are curious about the urgencies of the past and the living problems of our own modernity.
So why read him? You don’t work in Afro-Am, you say? I don’t either. And that’s my point. A celebrated and surely underread, century-old text can bring us back to important questions, like casting smartness in an ethical perspective.
Why we’re teachers.
Why thinking like a humanist is critical to using our intelligence.
And why being brainy is as least as much an obligation as a gift.
Follow me on Twitter @WmGermano