What is your life's blueprint? Dr. King and the Great Conversation
An invitation to talk about King and the classics, what I am learning right now—and read to the end for details on a new ONE YEAR Wondrium giveaway!
In this week’s issue of Civic Renaissance, we’ll explore:
An invitation join a dialogue on Dr. King’s philosophy of education
What is your life's blueprint? Exploring Dr. King’s passion for The Great Conversation
What I’m learning right now: opera appreciation for beginners
A giveaway: one-year subscription to Wondrium (formerly Great Courses Plus)!
An invitation join a dialogue on Dr. King’s philosophy of education
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the greatest leaders in America’s history. His success in convincing his fellow countrymen to recognize the evils of racism and racial segregation remains one of the most remarkable and important achievements in the history of our nation.
How was he able to do this?
What experiences, books, ideas, and thinkers influenced and formed him, and ultimately gave him the strength and moral courage to take on the powerful entrenched powers and interests that stood opposed to human and racial equality?
We know that his Christian faith, as well as the classics and The Great Conversation—the millennia-long dialogue among great men and women about the most important questions of life—were central to his education and worldview.
We’ve explored King’s passion for The Great Conversation before here at Civic Renaissance.
And this Saturday, October 16th from 2-3pm EST, I’d like to invite you to continue to this dialogue.
We’ll explore the moral, ethical, philosophical, and religious foundations of King's education, and we’ll discuss how these resources informed his life, work, and remarkable achievements. I’ll be moderating this panel disunion with Dr. Angel Parham of the University of Virginia, and Anya Leonard of Classical Wisdom.
If leaders are made, not born, as the saying goes, then understanding how King was educated can be useful for thinking about how we educate our students today—the leaders of tomorrow. Better understanding King’s education and moral formation can enable us to more effectively empower tomorrow’s leaders to confront the existing challenges to human equality and injustice in our own time.
What is your life's blueprint? Dr. King’s passion for The Great Conversation
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was both highly educated and passionate about education. In his “The Purpose of Education,” King argues that education must have two goals: one utilitarian, the other moral.
The utilitarian goal of education is to help students develop reasoning or technical capabilities that allow us to get a job and earn a living.
The moral, or intrinsic, goal of education is to help students to become good and just human beings who care about, and are oriented toward, the best and highest things so that we can lead meaningful lives.
In a speech King gave to an audience of African American high school students in Pennsylvania in October 1977, he asked his audience an important question:
What is the blueprint of your life?
A blueprint, King explains, is a guide. It is the foundation upon which one build one’s life.
Here is the speech, which you can enjoy in its entirety below. King offers some suggestions for what students—and all people—should have in their life’s blueprint. They’re worth remembering today.
Believe in the innate dignity and irreducible worth of the human person—of both ourselves and others. Despite what our culture tells you, King says, “Don’t be ashamed of your color, don’t be ashamed of your biological features… in your life’s blueprint, be sure that you have the principle of your own ‘somebody-ness.’” King was talking to a predominately African American audience, but these wonderful words are a powerful reminder for us all—to have at the core of our worldview a sense of the innate dignity of the human person, of all persons, including ourselves.
Pursue excellence in all that you do. “When you decide what you want to be in life, set out as if God almighty called you at this particular moment in history to do it. Don’t just set out to do a good job. Set out to do such a good job that the living, the dead or the unborn couldn’t do it any better.” In other words, don’t just set out to be something—be excellent. In all you do, great or small, do it well. King explains:
“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, 'Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’”
Have a lifelong commitment to the eternal principles of beauty, love, and justice. “Don’t allow anyone to pull you so low as to make you hate them,” King said. We each have a responsibility to make our country, and our world better. King suggests that everything we do in life should be committed to making the people and places around us more beautiful and more just. “Instead of ‘burn baby burn,’ we should say ‘build baby build!’” King stated resolutely in his speech.
In King’s proposed “blueprint” for our lives—grounded in human dignity, moral excellence, and a passion for eternal ideals of beauty, love and justice—we can see King’s passion for The Great Conversation in general, and the classical tradition in particular.
Similarly, un his powerful “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech—given the day before he died on April 3, 1978—King demonstrated commanding knowledge and enthusiasm for human history and the Great Conversation—actually so much more than just the classical “canon” with which many of us are familiar. King declared that—far from there being a single “golden age” of human history—there was much that we could learn from many different cultures, periods and traditions.
“As you know, if I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of general and panoramic view of the whole human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, "Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?" — I would take my mental flight by Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the promised land. And in spite of its magnificence, I wouldn't stop there. I would move on by Greece, and take my mind to Mount Olympus. And I would see Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Euripides and Aristophanes assembled around the Parthenon as they discussed the great and eternal issues of reality.
He goes on,
But I wouldn't stop there. I would go on, even to the great heyday of the Roman Empire. And I would see developments around there, through various emperors and leaders. But I wouldn't stop there. I would even come up to the day of the Renaissance, and get a quick picture of all that the Renaissance did for the cultural and esthetic life of man.
But I wouldn't stop there. I would even go by the way that the man for whom I'm named had his habitat. And I would watch Martin Luther as he tacked his ninety-five theses on the door at the church in Wittenberg. But I wouldn't stop there. I would come on up even to 1863, and watch a vacillating president by the name of Abraham Lincoln finally come to the conclusion that he had to sign the Emancipation Proclamation.
But I wouldn't stop there. I would even come up to the early thirties, and see a man grappling with the problems of the bankruptcy of his nation. And come with an eloquent cry that we have nothing to fear but fear itself. But I wouldn't stop there. Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, "If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the twentieth century, I will be happy."
King’s was passionate about the humanistic educational tradition—a vision of education grounded in moral excellence and the dignity of the human person.
He cared deeply for The Great conversation—the iterative dialogue on eternal ideas and important questions among the wise men and women who have come before us.
He thought both of these were cornerstones of any education—and were essential to see any education complete.
King embodied an ideal that was close to his heart: education shouldn’t happen in a vacuum. He believed that Great Books and ideas must stir us to action. He believed that exposing students to beauty, goodness and truth—key components of both humanism and The Great Conversation—would inspire students to act and change the word around them for the better.
Do you agree with King on this score?
How do you think the humanistic educational tradition and The Great Conversation can help us create a more just, loving, and beautiful world?
I’d love to hear from you. Write to me with your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org
And don’t forget to join us this Saturday to continue discussing King’s views on education!
What I’m learning right now: opera appreciation for beginners
I have a confession to make. In this golden age of podcasting, I am not a regular patron of podcasts.
(I know they are a great way to nourish our life of the mind, however, so if you have some favorite podcasts that you think might change my mind, send me your recommendations at email@example.com!)
Instead, I’m constantly listening to Great Course lectures. In the car, at the gym, while preparing dinner—I love to use these times in my day to learn something new, to cover new intellectual territory.
Recently, my husband, son and I drove fifteen hours from Cape Cod back to our home in Indianapolis. We decided to do what we do on all road trips, and selected a Great Courses lecture series to enjoy.
We settled on How to Listen to and Understand Opera by composer and musicologist Robert Greenberg.
This thirty-two lecture series is really an overview of the history of music—back to Ancient Greece and beyond! I chose this series because opera is something that I’ve enjoyed in the past—from performances at Paris’ majestic Palais Garnier to Vienna’s famed opera house—but still, it’s something I haven’t felt like I quite understood.
That made opera a perfect candidate for a Great Courses series—it was a subject area that I had passing familiarity or internet in, but still didn't feel I grasped entirely.
The video of this course retails for $440, but you can stream it—and hundreds of other amazing courses!—FREE by signing up for a free Wondrium trial here!
As I’ve progressed through the series, it has been fascinating to learn about the way in which music is a universal human art form—all people in all times and all places sing!
And opera in particular is a medium of art that confronts us with the tragedy and the beauty of the human experience. Like modern mass-market musicals, operas involve the times in human life that are so inundated with human emotion—that are so full of joy or brokenness— that people cannot help but sing.
Operas open us up to our own sense of humanity and the wonders and misfortunes that human life entails.
The great Italian opera composer Vincenzo Bellini wrote that the purpose of opera was “to make people weep, feel terror, and die through singing.”
He was confident in the power of music and theater to break through our emotional complacency and make us feel the depth of the human experience. In viewing the tragedy of people on stage, we are better able to empathize with the tragedy of others.
Bellini’s insight into opera is reminiscent of novelist Franz Kafka’s insight into the purpose of a book. Kafka wrote,
“If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skulls, then why do we read it? Good God, we also would be happy if we had no books and such books that make us happy we could, if need be, write ourselves. What we must have are those books that come on us like ill fortune, like the death of one we love better than ourselves, like suicide. A book must be an ice axe to break the sea frozen inside us. What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like a suicide. A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us.”
A book must be the axe to break open the frozen sea inside us.
That is powerful stuff.
Ideally, this is what all great art does. It humanizes us. It shakes us from our complacency. It helps us lead better, richer and more empathetic lives in community with others.
Are you an opera enthusiast? Is opera something you’ve always been curious about, but never had a chance to learn about? If so, claim your free Wondrium trial now!
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