Against the mental grain
Toss a few challenging old but pertinent classics into that pile of summer books
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Summer reading lists surround us, many of them commendable, like those you’ll find in this annual books issue of WORLD. Yet if the term “summer reading” conjures only escapism, a luxurious time to indulge in reading that soothes and affirms, these recommendations may not be for you. We’ve deliberately focused on good if a little challenging reads on topics not well covered in mainstream conversations, on the bestseller lists, or in the front-of-the-bookstore kiosks.
There’s no harm in reading for pleasure and relaxation, but there’s danger in overdoing it. “We can never obtain the mind of God by relying on our own reasoning,” said David Wilkerson, founding pastor of Times Square Church in New York. Having the privilege to love the Lord with “all your mind” means reading against the grain of one’s own thinking. Books that transport have their place, but we also want to read things that provoke us to think wider and deeper, to renew our minds (Romans 12:2).
So while scanning the season’s book lists, notice what worthwhile reads aren’t making the Top 10. Here’s one genre: American history classics. Peter Berkowitz, senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, recently pointed out that the nation’s leading law schools have stopped using The Federalist Papers.
At Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and Berkeley, schools that Berkowitz points out “produce many of the nation’s leading members of the bar and bench,” it’s no longer required to read any of these classic essays set down by our Founders and first-generation constitutional scholars. That means the three judges President Barack Obama has just nominated for the all-important U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit—all graduates of Harvard Law School—may not have mastered, or even read, them.
The 85 essays that came to be known as The Federalist, or The Federalist Papers, were written by James Madison, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton. Seized by the importance of making the case for ratifying the U.S. Constitution, the authors wrote under the pen name Publius and published most of the articles in leading newspapers—often three and four a week between October 1787 and August 1788. Due to popular demand (imagine!), a New York publisher collected them into two volumes in 1788 ahead of most states’ voting on ratification.
The collection forms “an incomparable exposition of the Constitution, a classic in political science unsurpassed in both breadth and depth by the product of any later American writer,” said historian Richard B. Morris. It reveals the thinking behind the Constitution, and shows the architects themselves—both their flaws and their genius.
“What is government itself,” asks James Madison in Federalist 51, “but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. … You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself.”
A long time ago I highlighted that selection in my political science 101 textbook classic, American Government: Readings and Cases (mine is the seventh edition; it’s now in its 18th). In 62 selected readings this survey book focuses on 17 Federalist essays. Yet, according to Berkowitz, exposure to the Founders has fallen even further since my undergrad days: Besides the law schools, political science departments at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford no longer require undergrad or doctoral candidates to study The Federalist. “The progressive ideology that dominates our universities teaches that The Federalist, like all books written before the day before yesterday, is antiquated and irrelevant,” he writes. Robbing students of what Berkowitz calls a truly liberal education, “our universities also deprive the nation of a citizenry well-acquainted with our Constitution’s enduring principles.”
By nature we are prone to forgetting first principles and prone to ease. Summer is a wonderful time for rest and restoration, but given our country’s precarious political state, throw in some U.S. history for grist along the way.
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