Whitman, Dewey, and the Progressive Tradition

“…higher progress…daughter of a physical revolution—mother of the true revolutions, which are of the interior life, and of the arts. For so long as the spirit is not changed, any change of appearance is of no avail.” – Walt Whitman

“My sense of the holy is bound up with the hope that someday my remote descendants will live in a global civilization in which love is pretty much the only law.” – Richard Rorty

Syllabus and Course Overview

Proseminar 154623
Mi 14:15 – 15:45
Rm 0.406

Instructor: Timothy Robbins
Office: 0.414
Office Hours: Do. 10:00 – 12:00 and by appointment

Course Description

In Achieving Our Country (1998), philosopher Richard Rorty aspired to renew what he perceived as America’s pledge to democratic activism, scientific pragmatism, and social progress; a “progressive” political tradition given a distinctively national expression by the poetry of Walt Whitman and the philosophy of John Dewey.
This course will examine some key texts from a tradition anchored by Whitman and Dewey, though spread widely across literary and philosophical disciplines. Through analysis and discussions of a cultural history comprising social poetry, pragmatist psychology, muckraking journalism and “politically conscious” hip-hop, we will reflect not just on the construction of a progressive legacy, but consider the still ambitious project to achieve a harmony between social equality and personal liberty in light of contemporary political and economic conditions.
In addition to expanding the knowledge of U.S. cultural history, the course aims to cultivate crit-ical analysis through discussions, presentations, and short in-class writing responses.

Course Materials

Reading packet available at The Copy Shop
Schedule of Assignments

Introduction: Education and the Progressive Imagination

16 October: Syllabus, Introductions; Richard Blanco, “One Today”; Walt Whitman, “I Sing America”

23 October: John Dewey, “My Pedagogic Creed”

30 October: Charles Taylor, “What’s Wrong with Negative Liberty?”

6 November: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “The Economic Bill of Rights”; Slavoj Zizek, “Who is John Galt?”; Banksy, “Follow Your Dreams”

Work and Higher Progress

13 November: Walt Whitman from Democratic Vistas

20 November: Phillip Levine, “What Work is”; Mr. Lif, “Live from the Plantation”

27 November: Tillie Olsen, “I Stand Here Ironing”; Alice-Dunbar Nelson, “I sit and sew”

Progressive Love

4 December: Walt Whitman, “I Sing the Body Electric” and “To A Stranger”

11 December: Emma Goldman, “The Tragedy of Women’s Emancipation”; Gordon Parks, “American Gothic, Washington D.C.”

18 December: Audre Lorde, “Movement Song”; Lauren Berlant and Michael Hardt
“No One is Sovereign in Love”
HOLIDAY: December 19 – January 7
Democratic Ethics

8 January: John Dewey, “The Good of Activity” and “Morality is Social”

15 January Walt Whitman, “To a Common Prostitute” and “You Felons on Trial in Courts”; Langston Hughes, “I, Too” and “Democracy”

22 January: Naomi Shihab Nye, “Gate A-4”; Muriel Rukeyser, “Elegy in Joy”


“Our” Progressive Legacies

29 January: Langston Hughes, “Let America Be America Again”; Allen Ginsberg, “America”

5 February: Conclusions, Introduction to Occupy Wall Street Poetry Anthology; Stuart Leonard, “Taking Brooklyn Bridge”
Assignment Breakdown

Active Participation: This course will be guided by classroom dialogue—not lecturing (please, I can’t stand my own voice!). Therefore, you can participate only by attending class prepared. To be ready for the seminar you must read the assigned texts, videos, or images completely, carefully, and critically. Take notes, develop questions, and isolate passages for class discussion.

Journal Portfolio: Journal responses offer an opportunity to engage in close readings of an image, line, idea, character, or word in each week’s reading assignment. Weekly prompts will typically ask students to connect texts to the course’s broader ideas and classroom discussions in one to two paragraphs. Journals will be collected throughout the semester and on the final day of class. Keep in mind that responses could provide the basis for future writing projects.

Short Presentation: Throughout the term, groups/individuals will present brief (5 minute) introductions to the week’s reading and lead discussion by providing three to four journal prompts that analyze formal, cultural, or historical elements of the text.

Final Project/Exam: For the final project—that is, for those of you who will need it—I’m open to all kinds of ideas that involve the course materials. Students who plan to write a term paper should hand in a one paragraph abstract and meet with me during office hours to discuss their topic. The essay will be a critical argument of one or several of the assigned texts. The hope is that the class discussions, presentations, and journal entries will have prepared you to plan, research, and compose a final essay of five to ten pages. For those who require a final exam, a date will be determined early in the term.

Policies and Procedures

Classroom Conduct: This course is led by thoughtful discussion. Please refrain from texting (I know it’s difficult), checking Facebook (even harder), talking (talk to me instead!) or sleeping (just stay home).

Plagiarism: It’s quite simple, don’t do it. I am always available to discuss the guidelines and requirements of proper citations.

Late Work: There is always a deal to be made. If you have trouble meeting a deadline, please inform me beforehand and we will (almost always) be able to reschedule. No harm done.



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