Review – A World of Ideas by Adriano Vasco
It is difficult for a textbook/reader entitled A World of Ideas to do justice to its title and live up to its implications. How many volumes, one may wonder, would such a reader need to consist to cover a “world of ideas”? It is significant that Lee A. Jacobus did not entitle this book The World of Ideas and thus, implicitly, makes no claim at presenting the world’s ideas in an exhaustive fashion; it is understood that the editor has included only the ideas he, for whatever reason, has deemed worthy of being contemplated in an academic setting. Any editorial position is both unavoidable and problematic. While the reader does present a wide range of ideas expressed in myriad texts, with subjects ranging from law and government to faith and spirituality, it is in essence canonical in its approach: One soon realizes that the “great ideas” in the book have predominantly been thought and put into text by the proverbial (and recently rather infamous) dead, white, patriarchal males. The champions of Western thought and achievement, such as Freud, Jung, Darwin, Rousseau, Marx, Plato, or Macchiavelli, seem to make up the major part of the book and dominate the world view implicit in the readings. Similarly, in his preface Jacobus discusses — of all texts he could have chosen — a selection from Macchiavelli’s The Prince in great detail, and even presents an annotated excerpt. While this choice may be purely coincidental, it is representative of the reader’s overall approach.
It would be hyperbolic and distorting to say, however, that A World of Ideas merely perpetuates Western ethnocentric thinking. In eight sections — respectively entitled “Government,” “Justice,” “Wealth,” “Mind,” “Nature,” “Culture,” “Faith,” and “Poetics” — Jacobus endeavors to present the student with a wide selection of different ideas and expose him/her to different cultures and distant eras. In an attempt to integrate diverse academic disciplines and subjects, Jacobus also includes cross-curricular texts, such as Michio Kaku’s “The Theory of the Universe.” In a laudable attempt to expand students’ minds, Jacobus offers selections from Buddhist and Hindu scriptures as well as “thoughts” from the Tao Te Ching. He nevertheless seems to succumb to the tendency to give preference to authors and thinkers from Western culture. Clifford Geertz, an anthropologist featured in the reader, comments on the fact that we can never truly know a different culture from the inside; ironically, A World of Ideas to a large extent perpetuates this notion. In the same fashion, in the section entitled “Culture,” we find mostly texts from outsiders rather than by members of another culture; both Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead, the former offering a Nietzschean approach to Zuni culture and the latter a gender analysis of Manus culture, have an essentially anthropological approach. They are Westerners, and inevitably present the cultures that they have visited through a Western lens. Even Alvar Nunes Cabeza de Vaca, featured in the same section, is an outsider, a shipwrecked Spaniard through whose eyes we witness his encounters with the natives. Thus, the majority of authors in the section “Culture” are Western in their approach and are merely writing about other cultures. One wonders why Jacobus did not include more texts by members of other cultures, such as, for example, Native American poetry, or texts by Chicano, African-American or South American authors. While, on the surface, A World of Ideas seems to do justice to a multicultural curriculum, it does rely heavily on what the West regards as “important ideas.”
The very notion of “important ideas” is problematic because it assumes that there is such thing as an important idea versus a not-so-important idea. Moreover, terming certain ideas “important” implies that the editor has the ability to discriminate between different ideas, judge them, and present an approved selection to the student. On what premise does Jacobus comb through the ideas generated by humanity as a whole and, in a process not unlike alchemy, distill the the ideas he deems refined enough and worthy of presenting? A closer analysis of the language he employs in his preface may give a clue to this basis of discrimination. Jacobus writes, “Since its first edition, A World of Ideas has attracted an audience of teachers and students who value the ideas that affect the way we [my italics] see the world” (v). He then proceeds to describe the collection in the reader as “. . .a representative sampling of important ideas examined by men and women who have shaped the way we [my italics] think today” (v). The author seems unaware that his “we” is, essentially, Western culture, and thus reflective of his ethnocentricity. Jacobus uses inclusive language, assuming that there is indeed a common ideological/cultural ground between him and the myriad students who will use his reader. Given the multicultural nature of this country, however, such an assumption might be unsound. Thus, ironically, the ideological assumptions underlying A World of Ideas are to a certain extent incongruous with Jacobus’ goal of generating critical, independent thinking.
A World of Ideas relies heavily, if not exclusively, on the potential of the presented ideas to generate what Jacobus calls “good writing.” He states, “Each [selection] was chosen because it clarifies important ideas and can sustain discussion and stimulate good writing” (v). Unfortunately, the author never really defines what he means by good writing, neither in his preface nor in the introductions to the particular sections. While the lack of practical advice concerning writing per se is indeed a shortcoming of the text, Jacobus does stress that the text’s main focus is to stimulate critical reading and thinking. The student is intended to become an active, questioning reader in his/her approaches to the presented selection. The underlying assumption seems to be that the student will — whether consciously or unconsciously — imitate the prose model and improve not only as a thinker, but also as a writer. Thus, practical writing advice is indeed kept to a minimum; even in his appendix, “An Introduction to Rhetoric,” Jacobus focuses on in-depth text analysis rather than offering hands-on advice for writing. Either the student is already expected to have a certain writing level, or the teacher is supposed to cover the mechanical aspects of writing in class.
While A World of Ideas does not offer a great deal of practical advice for writing, it does include intelligent questions for critical reading and some suggestions for writing at the end of each selection. Particularly interesting among these questions are the “connections,” which encourage the students to not only question the text and read critically, but also to evaluate a particular author’s ideas in light of the ideas of another author. Moreover, a large portion of the questions for critical reading asks the student to relate the ideas encountered in the text to his/her own life and experience. This, in turn, establishes a close experiential connection between the reader and the text. Ideally, once the students realize that many of the ideas in the text relate to and reflect their own thoughts and experiences, they will be motivated to express their views as fully and clearly as they can in their writing.
While A World of Ideas displays some significant shortcomings, such as its predominant focus on “dead white males,” a certain ethnocentricity, and its lack of practical writing instruction, it nevertheless is an extremely valuable reader for a college level writing class. A World of Ideas is useful in a writing course once the instructor has become aware of its inherent limitations. The text’s most redeeming quality is its focus on getting the students to think as individuals, to closely analyze a text and discover the rhetorical techniques employed, as well as to respond to it intelligently. Though the instructor would have to cover aspects of the writing process, such as audience, purpose, or form during class, A World of Ideas, within its boundaries and arbitrariness, is an excellent way to expose the students to a selection of sophisticated ideas in order to get them to read, think, and write critically.