Author/philosopher Jacob Needleman urges Chico to think deeply
Who are you? What does freedom mean to you personally? What is America?
These were the kinds of introspective questions posed by noted author and San Francisco State University professor of philosophy Jacob Needleman to a nearly full Laxson Auditorium audience last week. He didn’t have many answers; instead his lecture was aimed at spurring discussion about the future (read: soul) of this country and how to remain optimistic in the face of growing cynicism and moral and spiritual bankruptcy.
Needleman came to Chico State to discuss his most recent book, The American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders, chosen as the 2003-04 Book in Common at Chico State, a book that is read and studied by incoming freshmen across different disciplines. Although some Chico State history teachers took issue with the book’s accuracy, Philosophy Department Chairman Dennis Rothermel said the work was unopposed by faculty and met criteria partly because it was written at a higher reading level than the average 18-year-old may be accustomed to, and the author had an academic stance.
“It’s a book of ideas. … Some students do have trouble with it, but for the most part it’s been successful,” said American Studies teacher Steve Metzger, who first suggested the book to Rothermel.
“It’s opinionated and I didn’t agree with all of it … but the section where Frederic Douglass becomes a man [at age 15 by non-aggressive resistance to his slave owner] was powerful,” said 20-year-old construction management major Clay Anderson, who re-read the section three times and sent a copy to his dad.
On the Laxson stage, a seated Needleman spoke in low, almost pained tones with weighted pauses. He described our current philosophical crisis in this country as having to do with a “metaphysical repression” and desperate need to “re-mythologize” our past and rekindle a sense of moral and spiritual purpose—the kind exemplified by original icons such as Washington, Jefferson and Franklin (all of whom Needleman re-examines in his book as a first-time historian).
Citing cute mythology stories like Joseph Campbell at a Sunday school class, Needleman tempered his talk with reassurances of the basic goodness of humankind, glossing over the brutality and shamefulness of the American past: namely slavery and the genocide of Native Americans. After witnessing the anger many young people today hold toward government, Needleman said it was “easy to criticize” but hard to come up with the struggling, great ideas and “inner truths” needed to sustain our country’s vision of the future.
“There is a way of feeling remorse that delves deeper if you struggle within yourself,” Needleman said, arguing for the need to displace anger with the sense of possibility our original founders felt.
Asking the crowd to reread Emerson ("He will give you hope"), Needleman seemed to be giving nothing less than a spiritual pep talk, hoping that collective altruism will somehow trump self-interest in the end.
“An intellectual identity, not an ethnic identity. … America is only a spiritual nation to the extent that it still protects the spiritual search,” he noted.
The most poignant moment of the night came during the audience Q&A session. A middle-aged teacher who had immigrated to America from Britain in his early 20s, said he was struck by the extreme polarities in America, the fact that opposite its freedom was a pronounced conformity and subservience.
As a teacher, the man said, he was stunned at the low level of education in schools and the lack of critical thought encouraged in America. He cited American “grandstanding about freedom” when in actuality there are a number of other countries that are freer and more progressive in their politics. He ended by wondering whether he would soon leave this country.
After applause for the man’s heartfelt testimony, Needleman did what he had been doing all night: offered encouragement and hope.
“Please stay. We need more like you," he urged.