Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Social Philosophy Course


Martin Luther King, Jr. was a visiting professor at Morehouse College in the early 1960’s.* While there, he taught a senior seminar in social and political philosophy. What was on the syllabus?

Here’s his outline for the first semester of the course, from the King Center:

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s outline for his social philosophy seminar at Morehouse College

He includes material from Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Hobbes,  Locke, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Bentham, and Mill.

Here is an exam given in the course:

An exam from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s social philosophy seminar at Morehouse College

Thanks to various readers and tweeters for bringing this to my attention.

Readers may be interested in the forthcoming collection, To Shape a New World: Essays on the Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King, edited by Tommie Shelby and Brandon Terry (Harvard). Shelby and Terry discussed the book and King’s political philosophy on WBUR’s “Radio Boston” yesterday.

(*Morehouse says the course took place in 1960; the King Center says 1961-62. The exam’s date of January 25, 1962, suggests the course began in Fall 1961.)

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Jimbob
Jimbob
3 years ago

Now THAT is what a syllabus should look like.Report

Daniel Kaufman
3 years ago

Pretty hilarious to consider the recent posts and comments regarding the Intro syllabus that was posted for our consideration. I wonder if those who supported using that syllabus and who went after critics would have been prepared to tell MLK all about “dead white male” philosophers and how teaching classics “alienates” people of color and other marginalized communities. Then again, I quoted Du Bois who felt similarly to MLK about the philosophical classics and it didn’t seem to have much effect, so perhaps they would have.Report

Conor Mayo-Wilson
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
3 years ago

Hi Daniel (if I may),
Dr King’s final examination suggests that he may have taught those dead white male philosophers a bit differently than many contemporary instructors do. What types of “radical ideas” in Plato’s Republic do you think Dr. King emphasized to his students? Do seminars on political theory typically discuss Aristotle’s theory of slavery in depth, and if so, do you think they would teach the material in the same way that Dr. King would? Does Dr. King’s fourth question about “law breaking” indicate that he might have emphasized different parts of Aquinas than are often taught? Do you think Dr. King’s discussion of the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution might have differed from how those documents are often discussed in many political theory courses?

A lot of the discussion on this blog has emphasized that *how a course is taught* cannot be assessed by a cursory examination of the reading list. Discussion questions, lecture content, forms of assessment, and instructor behavior, among other things, matter a lot. I conjecture that Dr. King’s political philosophy class, despite containing only dead white men on the reading list, might have been considerably more radical than courses taught now that incorporate contemporary feminist and critical race theory.

Like many readers of this blog, I think many different styles of teaching are *permissible* given what we currently know about student motivation, ability, and so on. Although I am trying to incorporate “non-traditional” authors onto some of my reading lists, I currently teach classes in which students read only dead white men. I don’t think I am doing students harm, and in fact, I think my students enjoy and learn a lot from those classes. Further, I, like many folks who I think you’re criticizing, would not chastise a fellow philosophy instructor for teaching a course with a reading list containing only dead white men, especially because many professional philosophers (a) have little training outside the “canon” and thus (b) need to do independent research if they wish to incorporate philosophical works written by women and people of color prior to the 20th century. In previous posts on this blog, many have simply defended that it is *permissible* to teach a themed introductory course with an non-traditional reading list.. Similarly,, I think many would defend Dr. King’s syllabus to teach a non-traditional political philosophy class with a traditional reading list. And so on for a variety of other course designs.Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  Conor Mayo-Wilson
3 years ago

I was speaking quite specifically about the debate in the comments section after the first post and then the follow-up post, referencing the same subject.

In the course of that discussion it was quite clear that many were *not* simply saying that teaching a course like the one described is “permissible,” but that teaching the classic material today is a mistake, and on several occasions that doing so in some way “alienates” various marginalized communities.

As for the rest of your questions, I don’t know how MLK taught the material nor do I know how many other people do, so to answer you would just be to engage in baseless speculation. All of my arguments in the previous discussion had to do with what I think is appropriate in an Introductory level syllabus, for a course that is very likely going to be part of General Education and may be the only course in philosophy a student takes in their academic career. Given the general thinning out of arts, language, and humane-letters education in college, I maintain(ed) that it is especially important today that students experience Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Mill and the like. But from some of the responses I got — one exceedingly confused person described my standard-as-hell, historically based reading list as “bizarre” — you’d have thought I’d made some wild, crazy suggestion.Report

Chupacabra
Chupacabra
Reply to  Conor Mayo-Wilson
2 years ago

How do contemporary instructors teach these texts? Your opening sentence requires that you have some answer to this question determinate enough to allow you to interpret King’s test as suggesting that he taught them quite differently. So I’m curious to know what your answer to this question is, and why you think you are in a position to know it. Report

Chupacabra
Chupacabra
Reply to  Chupacabra
2 years ago

In my experience as one who teaches more than a few of those texts and who knows plenty of others who teach many of those texts, I can say:

1. King probably has in mind the sexual egalitarianism of the guardian class as well as the abolition of the family and private property in those classes. Those proposals are central to the dialogue and typically a major part of my teaching of them.

2. I have published on Aristotle’s theory of slavery and find it to be an unavoidable and productive topic for discussion. I’m not aware of anyone who teaches Aristotle’s Politics but ignores the defense of slavery. I don’t know how King taught it, but I would not be surprised if he (or many other African Americans) taught it quite differently than I would. But apart from King’s being more interesting than I am, I’m not sure why this would matter; I typically discuss the uses to which Aristotle’s authority was put to defend the exploitation and enslavement of natives in the New World and of Africans (I have also taught Sepulveda and Las Casas’ debate about the ‘Indians’). Is this markedly different from what you imagine King doing? If so, why do you suppose so?

3. The question about law-breaking is hard to avoid if one reads the Treatise on Law, which is often the only part of the Summa that anyone reads in college courses (apart from the 5 Ways). When I teach it, I sometimes explicitly compare and contrast King’s view in the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which cites it and draws on it but sets out quite a different and more demanding set of conditions for justified disobedience. I’m virtually certain that King would have been more interesting to listen to on this subject than I am, but how different is this than what you have in mind?

4. When I have taught Locke, I have discussed the relationship of the central ideas of the Second Treatise to the Declaration and Constitution. Since I have never taught a course that focuses on either of those American documents, I typically stick to simple points. Someone focusing on the American documents would no doubt teach them quite differently. I’m not sure what dramatic differences you envision between King’s teaching and that of contemporary philosophers and political theorists teaching Locke (or Rousseau, or…). Are you imagining, for instance, that teachers these days just ignore the role of slavery in the American founding and the severe contradictions it involved? On my understanding, such topics are standard.

I don’t think I’m doing anything wildly different from most folks who teach these texts, particularly not from people who specialize in the history of philosophy. I’m sure King’s class would have been different than mine, but I’m not seeing any reason to think that he approached them any differently than I do.

You must be supposing something quite different either in King’s teaching or in standard contemporary teaching. What is it? Report

Matthew
Matthew
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
3 years ago

Hi Daniel,
I think there’s some important context which might change the interpretation that someone may otherwise draw concerning Dr. King’s syllabus. This course is being taught at a historically black college to a student body that was predominantly *black. Given the year and material presented, what seems clear to me is that Dr. King was not just trying to teach these students philosophy, but teach these students the philosophy that they could use to communicate across racial divides with the white population. There was, for lack of better term, a language of the justification of segregation and white supremacy. There was an education level, and an academic background, that people in power at the time (and still, now) used. In order to engage and fight those people, it is possible, and I think likely, that Dr. King recognized he needed to teach his students the same historical sources (with clearly a different focus). He likely believed that there was greater power in engaging people who would justify their beliefs by appeals to principles of Hobbes, Rousseau, Bentham, Mill, etc, by engaging directly with the ideas of those very thinkers. To claim “an unjust law is no law at all” is to leverage the ideas of Augustine, a language white religious oppressors understood, against the ideas of Plato.

I have little doubt that in today’s climate, where higher education is somewhat readily more available to African Americans (than it was in the early 1960’s–I want to be clear), Dr. King would be a strong advocate for a diversified syllabus. I have little doubt that he also recognized that a resistance that understands the language of its oppressors is likely to be stronger and more effective than a resistance that does not.

*I have little knowledge of the racial demographics of historically black colleges in the early 60’s. Report

Chupacabra
Chupacabra
Reply to  Matthew
2 years ago

The suggestion that King regarded these texts as containing simply the voices of his oppressors would seem to require a pretty cynical interpretation of the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, where he explicitly endorses aspects of Aquinas’ views about law and obedience yet also articulates a view subtly different from (and rather more restrictive, as it happens) than Aquinas’. The natural, non-cynical interpretation would be that he learned from reading Aquinas, both in finding some things to agree with and in refining his own views in response. It is of course possible that he really believed that Aquinas et al. were of no value to his students apart from the strategic rhetorical value of being able to quote the oppressor against himself. But we’d need some reason to think so, and none has been given. Perhaps King was just not wedded to a fundamentally Manichean view of the world that divides it up into the oppressed, who are the ally, and the oppressors, who are the enemy; perhaps King was capable of recognizing the moral complexity of people and ideas. That used to be a hallmark of American liberals, but alas, those days seem to have passed. Report

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
3 years ago

The exam is very interesting. It looks to me as if MLK deliberately set it up to give his students two strategic options :

1) To address the burning issues of the day via a critical dialogue (sometimes, one suspects, a ferociously critical dialogue) with a set of famous political thinkers of the past, all of them (at it happens) dead white males.

2) To discuss these thinkers in a relatively abstract, theoretical and historical way if they felt uncomfortable with option 1).

Why do I say this? Well students have to answer seven out of five questions only two of which (maybe only one of which ) could not be answered competently by a student who studiously avoided any mention of contemporary issues.

Thus King was fostering the development of radical ideas and challenging his students to apply the political philosophy that they were learning and developing to the present and whilst *at the same time* allowing them to pass the course with credit if they did not feel like taking up the challenge.

Why did he do it this way? I suspect a respect for the autonomy students. Did King have a political agenda? Of course he did. He was passionately committed to a wide range of radical causes. Was he out to attract recruits and supporters to the civil rights cause? Of course he was, especially as he was teaching at what was in those days was probably not just an Historically Black College but a Black College tout court. But he only wanted recruits and supporters who had come to the cause out of a reasoned conviction, not because they had been intellectually pressured, bamboozled or bedazzled by a charismatic professor. Thus the course seems to provide ‘spaces’ for those who might dissent from his agenda, either because they didn’t agree with him or because they were just not interested. His OBJECT was to help students to think for themselves about a range of political issues and to acquire a working knowledge of a range of political classics. His HOPE was that these autonomous critical thinkers would wind up agreeing with him and committing to the cause. But he did not want to compromise their autonomy in order to secure that agreement.
Report

DocRPretired
DocRPretired
Reply to  Charles Pigden
3 years ago

I think you mean 5 out of 7, not 7 out of 5. Just kidding… 🙂Report

Charels Pigden
Charels Pigden
Reply to  DocRPretired
3 years ago

Aargh! Like I said, I stink as a proof reader. Yes of course, five or maybe even six out the seven questions could have been answered without contemporary reference. Report

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
3 years ago

I totally stink as a typist and proof-reader. My fourth paragraph should read:

Thus King was fostering the development of radical ideas and challenging his students to apply the political philosophy that they were learning and developing to the present whilst *at the same time* allowing them to pass the course with credit if they did not feel like taking up the challenge.Report

DocRPretired
DocRPretired
Reply to  Charles Pigden
3 years ago

Me, too. See previous joking post to your site. But overall, your comments are very good and I agree entirely. Could anyone assign all those readings nowadays? Not in my experience after 30+ years – one anthology, maybe.Report

Rachel Falkenstern
Rachel Falkenstern
3 years ago

Thanks for this!
But I’d love to know: what was in the SECOND semester??? 🙂Report

John
John
Reply to  Rachel Falkenstern
3 years ago

Hegel and the utilitarians?
And I second the thanks — fascinating!Report

chronos
chronos
3 years ago

There is a reason Hegel is on the list…..because King says that Hegel is his favorite philosopher. Here is a link for those interested.

http://www.autodidactproject.org/other/hegel-mlk2.htmlReport

Brad
Brad
3 months ago

Just a question that I suspect some of you can answer. How widely known would King have been to his students at the time? Would there have been any increase in “fame-level” that might have occurred it it were 1960 vs. 1961=62 date? Would anyone have set there and thought, Man, I’m getting a course from Martin Luther King? Report