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APRIL 2003
Volume 95, Issue 4
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Canon fodder
In Losers political scientist Bernard Silberman and his students learn from thinkers who ended up as also-rans.

Sitting in on the final session of Political Science 258, Losers, doesn’t exactly make the observer feel like a loser, although it does provoke the uneasy sensation of being a fair number of laps—and readings—behind. The 40-some College students parked elbow to elbow in a sunny Cobb Hall classroom have already read and written short papers on works by Baum, Bergson, James (William), Garvey, Luxemburg, de Maistre, Schiller, Spencer, and Sorel. All nine are counter-Enlightenment texts that aren’t often read or taught these days. Which is why Bernard Silberman designed the “anti-core” Losers in the first place.


In building Losers around “forgotten” thinkers—19th- and early-20th-century writers “who, for the most part, view reason as the enemy of truth or at least as false reed on which we cannot depend”—Bernard Silberman encountered a not-altogether-unexpected problem. Forgotten thinkers aren’t always still in print.
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PHOTO:  Bernard Silberman
Photo by Jason Smith

As the professor writes in his course prolegomena, “What constitutes the canon was a question that bothered me from the very first time I taught in one of the Social Sciences core courses. I came to the conclusion that it was a set of books or readings people had selected which represented their idea of what constituted a national culture.... At the University of Chicago this seems to mean a national culture organized around the theme of REASON.”

Silberman—who earned his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in 1956, directs Chicago’s Workshop on East Asia, and has a Pick Hall office that is wall-to-wall books on history, sociology, economics, literature, you name it—is no stranger to reason. His Cages of Reason (Chicago, 1993) is subtitled “The Rise of the Rational State in France, Japan, the United States, and Great Britain.” Yet the title hints at opportunities lost, and in the Losers prolegomena he argues that certain thinkers lost out in the canon race because they failed to champion reason as the road to human freedom and autonomy. Why didn’t they hop on the Enlightenment bandwagon? Because they realized that reason can destroy “those bonds forged by myth, love, affection, common language, and customs, which make it possible to live as a member of a community that transcends our own interests.”

Some of the Losers, Silberman concedes, may “seem brutish or rigid or intolerant…. They are nevertheless part of our heritage and our discourse, and we neglect them at our peril.”

The early March afternoon is half-lion, half-lamb, and the undergrads are dressed for the weather in stocking caps and parkas, baseball caps and sweaters. At 1:30 p.m., when the elbow-to-elbow seating has become standing room only and the room temperature is rising, Silberman, a 2002 Quantrell Award winner for excellence in undergraduate teaching, walks in and sheds his overcoat.

“Someone wanted a copy of the exam?” he asks, holding out copies of the take-home final and looking about for an outstretched hand. “Anyone else want one?” Then, hands stuffed into pockets, he cocks his head to one side and fires the starting gun: “Today we’re going to talk about liberty.”

If Losers is anti-core in content it is hard-core Chicago in form. Pacing a small space in front of an untouched chalkboard, for the next hour or so Silberman tosses a question to the group at large, weighs the answer, and quizzes the respondent until someone else jumps in or it’s time to pop another question. His style is Socratic interlocutor cum prosecuting attorney, and when students aren’t answering they tend to fall into poses of Rodinesque concentration, chin on hand and eyes on the speaker.

“In the 19th and 20th century these writers all had liberty as a concern,” Silberman says. “What kinds of liberty were they talking about?”

“Do you mean categories of liberty?” a T-shirted student plays for time.

“How would you categorize these guys?” Silberman confirms. “Remember, they were all losers.”

The exchange flies from liberty as “absence of constraint” to the idea, offered by a guy in buzz cut and green-checked shirt, of “a tradition of specified liberty,” or, as Silberman puts its, “liberty defined and constrained by tradition.” Hands out of pockets now, he asks how hierarchy plays into the Losers’ conception of liberty. Hoping for an answer, he challenges further: “You don’t think that hierarchy is one of the basic conceptions that emerges from the 19th century?”

From the corner to the professor’s right another student seeks clarification: “Do you mean social hierarchy?” Turning to face him directly, Silberman offers an indirect response, paraphrasing Victorian philosopher and sociologist Herbert Spencer: “Spencer more or less says, Some people are born dumb, and that’s it. Is that what de Maistre thought?” The counter-Enlightenment, counter-Revolution French theorist, it’s agreed, assigned hierarchy by virtue of birth.

But the guy in the green-checked shirt is back to Spencer. “I don’t think Spencer is about hierarchy at all,” he tells Silberman. “He’s about industrial specialization.”

“No?” the prof asks, arms crossed. “Doesn’t he think the most intelligent should run society? What’s the distinction then?”

Distinctions get made, clarified, accepted, enlarged. “Isn’t the most important notion, according to Spencer, ‘Thou shalt not’?” Silberman asks. “Your sphere of liberty is determined by the way in which you can keep the state from doing anything.” Where does the United States fall in such an evaluation, he wonders. Is it a system of positive liberty? No one answers, so he offers a brief review: “In negative liberty, it’s a question of how much anybody can constrain your actions,” while positive liberty “has to do with who governs, who has the authority to make law for the public interest.” In other words, “the state has a positive role to play.”

Still no answers. “Do you remember Tocqueville?” Silberman prompts.“I remember who he is,” a young man in a sea-foam T-shirt replies to laughter. “Tocqueville said Americans would rather have equality than freedom,” Silberman says. “Do you agree with that? That everybody is equal before the law?”

As a latecomer enters and finds space on the floor near the door, more theoretical ground gets covered. So far none of the women ranged around the outer ring of chairs has spoken up, and by the session’s end that hasn’t changed.

Taking off his suit jacket, Silberman continues to bring more of the Losers cast on stage, if only for cameo appearances. “What about Sorel? What would freedom look like according to Sorel? He also believes in a hierarchy of a certain kind.” Garvey: “For Garvey, government is all about politics and the notion of inclusiveness.” Then William James: “Where does he fall” on the virtues of positive versus negative liberty?

Liberty is linked and relinked to hierarchies of decision making. As the idea of a natural hierarchy dissolved in the 19th century while evidence of inequality remained, the writers became “concerned about what the standard for hierarchy could be. Increasingly,” Silberman says, “the answer came to be culture. There are people who place the birth of culture in the 19th century,” when the lines between high and popular culture were drawn. Those boundaries, he notes, aren’t set in stone, pointing to The Wizard of Oz, a popular-culture text that “we’ve elevated to high culture” by including it in the syllabus.

“Can’t we do that to pretty much anything?” asks a white-T-shirted, multi-earringed young man.

“Yes, but it’s done by the highbrows,” the prof shoots back. He ticks off a few examples. Jazz. “LPs,” he says. “If I were you, I’d invest in LPs.” Jeans. Duchamps’s urinal turned into modern art. Through it all Silberman’s deadpan, quick-draw delivery has the students laughing. Then it’s time for class to break up and for the final professorial question: “Anybody else want to say something?”




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