Readers of this blog know that I love to provide my students with memorable end-of-term parties. For my Rousseau course, we feasted upon the foods mentioned by Rousseau in his Confessions: crusty baguettes, Swiss and French cheeses, cherries (if in season)- hearty peasant fare for Rousseau to carry with him on his solitary promenades. In my Feminism and the Family course, where we had spent considerable time talking about child-rearing practices, I solicited from the students a list of their favorite childhood foods: juice boxes, little chocolate puddings, Kit-Kats. Last semester in my children's literature course I outdid myself with a banquet table laden with themed foods from every book we read together during the semester, from a gingerbread house for Hansel and Gretel, to foamy milk served in tin pails (!) for The Secret Garden, to candy sticks tucked in long stockings for Little House on the Prairie.
This semester I taught an upper-division "single philosopher" course on 20th-century political philosopher John Rawls. Let me begin by saying that Rawls is by all accounts the greatest political philosopher of the twentieth century. He revived a moribund field of academic inquiry that had offered little new since the writings of John Stuart Mill; it is no exaggeration to say that everything written since the publication of his groundbreaking book A Theory of Justice in 1971 followed by his almost as influential book Political Liberalism in 1993 has in one way or another been written in response to Rawls. He's been criticized from the left and from the right, by communitarians and libertarians, by feminists and critical race theorists. He created the very language in which political philosophy is conducted, with terms such as "the original position," "the veil of ignorance," "the difference principle," "an overlapping consensus of comprehensive doctrines," and "public reason." He is a figure of indisputable greatness.
He is also a prose stylist of staggering dullness.
What to do for a Rawls-themed party? All I could think of was to provide a pizza that we could distribute among the members of the class according to principles of justice we would choose behind a veil of ignorance which shielded us from knowledge of our own socially situated identities. Lame!
Then, by a stroke of luck, I stumbled upon a musical (!) adapted from A Theory of Justice created this past year by Oxford University Students. A Theory of Justice: The Musical! I had a plan for my party!
So yesterday in class we ate popcorn and movie-theater candy like Dots (yum!) and Raisinets (even yummier!) and watched the (amateurishly filmed) video I downloaded from Vimeo. A young John Rawls journeys through 2500 years of political philosophy in search of a beautiful student named Fairness who has inspired him to craft his own new theory of justice. Socrates appears as a toga-clad ventriloquist's dummy sitting on Plato's knee; Hobbes and Locke duke it out in a state-of-nature rap number; Rousseau sweet-talks Fairness with sexy talk about "ze general will"; utilitarians form a dapper barbershop quartet; Rawls's philosophical rival Robert Nozick does a tango with fellow libertarian Ayn Rand to the tune, "A Selfish Kind of Love." Oh, and Kant appears as a golden-gowned fairy godmother-in-drag.
For my graduating senior philosophy majors the musical was a great chance to show how many philosophical in-jokes they could now understand. For those with a less extensive philosophical background it was a chance to have a novel introduction to most of the major figures of western philosophical thought. All of us got to hear some catchy tunes and to munch on popcorn and candy.
Another end-of-year party success!