“Aristotle is in serious difficulty!” Professor Cohen exclaimed as he leaned forward, gripping the podium with his right hand and pounding on it with his left. I was in my first year of graduate school, taking the eminent literary theorist Ralph Cohen’s course on English Romantic literature, burning every ounce of intellectual oil I had to keep up with his argument dismantling a claim Aristotle makes in his Poetics. Week by week, Cohen mercilessly took down other giants in the Western literary canon, as well.
I was a late bloomer who hadn’t even planned for college until my senior high school English teacher got me fired up about books and ideas. Through four years at a small liberal arts college, I expanded my reading considerably, questioning philosophical claims and literary interpretations while also trying my hand at writing them. Cohen upped the ante, demonstrating that you can go to the very foundation of a system of thought and find it wanting. Even venerable, old Aristotle was in a tight spot.
Anyone and anything are open to scrutiny—I took that lesson with me into my own teaching. One of the first jobs I got after graduate school was in a program to help Vietnam Veterans prepare for college. I built a writing course on the kinds of readings the vets would likely encounter during their freshman year: short stories and poems, sociological observations on American life, passages from science textbooks like a discussion of the Big Bang. We read carefully, closely, and then wrote. Read and wrote. Somewhere in all this, I told them the Ralph Cohen story, both for comic effect and also to push them toward more critical reading. At the end of the semester, my students gave me a leather portfolio. Across the bottom it read in gold script: Aristotle is in serious difficulty.
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