Individual Rights and Community in America

Fall 2000

Under the banner of “I’ve got my rights” Americans have forged a government and established a way of life unparalleled in history. The “American Way” celebrates the supremacy of individual rights over the ideas of community. But does this promote selfishness and a breakdown of society? Can individual choice and freedom coexist with duty and loyalty to others? Generations of writers have grappled with the relation between individualism and community. By reading their observations and reflecting on their conclusions, we can gain a better understanding of our present-day political thought and make judgments on where we want to go from here. If these questions interest you, please join us for this “Let’s Talk About It, Oklahoma” reading and discussion series.

Oklahoma City University invites participants to make these issues come “alive” within and among us in this five-part series. At each session, a Humanities scholar will make a 30-40 minute presentation on the readings. Small group discussion will follow with experienced discussion leaders. At the end, everyone comes together for a brief wrap-up. Anyone interested in participating is encouraged to pre-register and borrow the reading selections by calling Harbour Winn at 521-5472 or dropping by OCU’s Walker Center 171. A brochure describing the series theme is also available.

The series will be held in Walker Center, Room 151, on the Oklahoma City University campus from 7:00 to 9:00 PM on Tuesdays, beginning September 12 and continuing on alternate Tuesdays through November 14. Books, theme materials, and services for this series are provided by “Let’s Talk About It, Oklahoma.” Funding for this series is provided by a grant from the Oklahoma Humanities Council and the National Endowment for the Humanities. “Let’s Talk About It, Oklahoma” is a cooperative project of the Oklahoma Library Association and the Oklahoma Humanities Council.

READINGS AND DATES

September 12, 2000 Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville

Tocqueville came to the United States over 165 years ago to see what a modern democracy could be. He struggles with the fundamental questions of what kind of community can exist in a country founded on freedom and equality. Would individualism isolate Americans from another and thereby undermine the condition of freedom? (Read: Vol. I: Introduction, pp., 9-20; Part 1—Ch. 2, 3, 4; Part 2—Ch. 4, 6, 7, 9, 10. Vol. 2: Part 2—Ch. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 9, 13; Part 3—Ch. 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 14, 22, 24, 26. Note: selections differ somewhat from those listed in the brochure.)

September 26, 2000 Coriolanus by William Shakespeare

Shakespeare proves himself a shrewd political observer as well as a great dramatist in this play about republican Rome in the midst of a constitutional crisis. How can a person find personal honor and community approval when one lives in a place torn between patricians and plebs, or between rich and poor?

October 10, 2000 The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Rousseau’s early criticisms of modern liberal democracy are still the basis of many contemporary complaints about unrestricted individual rights. From the point of view of community, is self-interest sufficient to constitute a decent civil society? What about the importance of morality for community? Do we have to limit freedom to remain free?

October 24, 2000 The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorn

In Hawthornes’s classic and yet very contemporary tale of “forbidden love,” he asks us to wonder whether individual happiness must be sacrificed for the common good. Can political liberty and moral freedom coexist? What of religious views?

November 14, 2000 A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines

In this 1993 National Book Critics Circle Award winner, Gaines evokes a particular time and place to dramatize fundamental issues in our series theme: the importance of individual dignity, the efficacy of a community’s view of justice, the determination of the common good. An unforgettable novel to close with.