Taking A Class With Dr. King

Dr.. Martin Luther King is known to us as a teacher whose relentless advocacy and aspirational vision of a better, fairer America helped to power the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. What many do not know is that he was a teacher in fact–for one class. In 1962, Dr. King returned to his alma mater, Morehouse College, and taught a class called Seminar in Social Philosophy. The records of that class, and the recollections of the students who were fortunate to take it, provide a glimpse at another facet of this iconic historical figure and the ideas that motivated him and his work.

You can see Dr. King’s handwritten syllabus of readings for the course, and an exam that was given in the course, here. From looking at the reading list, it’s obvious that this was one of those college courses that would challenge a student to the limit: the readings encompassed a broad range of philosophical writings, from Plato and Aristotle to Thomas Aquinas, from Hobbes and Locke to Kant, from Rousseau and Hegel to John Stuart Mill–with a little Machiavelli thrown in for good measure. In the exam, students had to answer five of seven questions that required them to actually think about how the philosophical constructs they learned could be compared and applied. One of the seven questions, for example, asked students to “Appraise the Student Movement in its practice of law-breaking in light of Aquinas’ Doctrine of Law.”

Ten years ago CNN published a story about the eight men and women who took this class with Dr. King–one of whom was Julian Bond. You can read about them, and their interesting recollections about the course that met once weekly for that semester in 1962, here. Not surprisingly, the students were influenced and motivated by that class, One student, Barbara Adams, shared this recollection:

“It was a hard class in the sense that there was a lot of reading and understanding great thinkers. It was relaxed in that it was more like a conversation rather than a lecture. It was hard in that we had to come to grips with nonviolence as more than just a political tactic. He wanted us to understand it was a way of living and bringing about change.”

She added this point about how the students viewed Dr. King at that time:

“We didn’t really know we were in the midst of a man who in the future would be considered great. We knew he was a man with a vision, sure, but he seemed so ordinary and so down to earth and he was so easy to talk to, even more than some of my other professors. I mean we respected and admired him, but we never dreamed that he would become a Nobel Prize winner or that he would become a martyr. He was not a puffed-up man.”

Imagine having the opportunity to discuss philosophy with Dr. Martin Luther King and a few other highly motivated students who had done the heavy reading, had thought about the tough issues, and were passionate about the subject and its relevance to an ongoing social movement that would change America forever. Imagine being spurred to learn and think about how the developing philosophy of the Civil Rights movement fit into the grand sweep of different philosophies that had been articulated in the past. This must have been a college course for the ages.

The story of the Morehouse College Seminar in Social Philosophy also shows that Dr. King didn’t shy away from challenging others, whether it was in the pulpit, in the classroom, or on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. And it also shows why college students shouldn’t always try to take the easy route. Sometimes, the toughest classes have the greatest reward. It’s something worth thinking about as we commemorate Martin Luther King Day.