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Martin Luther King’s 1964 Nobel Lecture: The Quest for Peace and Justice

The 2017 Common Reading Selection

martinlutherking.jpgThough not entirely forgotten, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Nobel Lecture is one of his less-remembered works. We believe Dr. King’s message more than 50 years ago retains considerable relevance for students entering Catawba in the fall of 2017. In reading and discussing this work, students will examine whether we have addressed the symptoms of our “spiritual and moral lag” he identifies in 1964, and also consider the new challenges additional technological advancements over the past half-century place in the path of progress for mankind. This lecture also calls us to consider our individual goals in life. Finally, this work offers strong evidence for the value of a well-rounded liberal education as his arguments are supported throughout by ideas drawn from previous works across disciplines, cultures, and eras in human history.   


Study & Reading Guide

 

Why We Think You Should Read This
Martin Luther King, Jr. is a well-known historical figure for most Americans. Each year, we revisit his life and life’s work as part of a national holiday. Many of you may have read one of his works, listened to or viewed one of his speeches, or read class materials on his life and role in the civil rights movement as part of your education prior to arriving at Catawba. For this year’s Common Reading selection, we have selected a speech that is less-remembered, but is certainly not forgotten. As part of earning a Nobel Prize, Dr. King was tasked with delivering a lecture. He took this opportunity to use the global stage to offer a challenge to mankind. In the speech, he considers the pressing problems of his time and identifies a common root cause. While this work was given to the world in 1964, the issues Dr. King highlights remain familiar to humanity in 2017.

This lecture represents the kinds of works students should expect to encounter in their college education. Critical reflection and self-reflection represent among the most difficult tasks to master over a lifetime. However, these are also the paths to improvement. Introducing this lecture at the outset of your journey through undergraduate education serves to prepare you in several ways. First, we are challenged to apply his words to our own world and our own lives, considering whether we, as individuals and as a common human society, have progressed in addressing the ailments of humanity identified 53 years ago. Second, you must confront difficult and contentious issues in this work and practice constructive and civil discussion of sensitive topics. Third, and finally, you are challenged to consider how choices in education can serve the purposes of self-improvement and the progress of mankind. Liberal education, as Catawba College defines it, provides students with the opportunity to avoid or resolve the “moral and spiritual lag” in their own lives; however, the degree to which you improve yourself in all areas rests ultimately on your own choices and efforts.


Things to Consider Before You Read
Active reading of material begins before you actually sit down with this assigned selection. All of your education, inside and outside the classroom is linked. How you understand this work relies on your own personal background and educational experiences as well as the wider context in which it was created. After reading this selection, it then becomes part of your base of knowledge, forming the lens through which you encounter and understand future works. To prepare for this article, spend some time researching some of these questions online, and considering others through self-reflection (the method you should follow is suggested by each specific question).

  1. Refresh your knowledge about Dr. Martin Luther King.
    • Why do we remember him? Why is he important in American and human history?
    • Why did he receive the Nobel Peace Prize? How does the Nobel Committee make its decisions?
  2. What are the primary problems facing humanity today? What are the primary problems facing American society specifically?
  3. In what areas has humanity progressed over time? In what areas have we regressed?

 

While You Read
Active reading requires you to interact with the material. Other than the reading, you will need two important tools in addition to a paper copy of the reading.

  1. A pen or pencil to take notes on the reading. You can mark interesting portions of the reading you would like to think about further, underline or circle words you may need to look up to understand a passage, make a note of names, or mark passages you feel are important to the author’s point.
  2. A separate piece of paper. Treat reading course materials as you would written correspondence. Approach this reading (in our case the text of a speech) as letter or email to which you must respond. Write down questions you would have for the author that are designed to clarify parts of his argument and to begin a conversation about areas of disagreement. Because this is a speech, you may also wish to listen to the audio and take notes on what you hear, much like you would do in a class lecture.

 

Steps to Take

  1. Print a copy of the reading. You’ll need a paper copy to make notes in the text.
  2. Get out a separate piece of paper and a pen.
  3. Consider the following questions as you take your notes:
    • Are there any examples of events in today’s world that seem to fit with the events and challenges Martin Luther King, Jr. identifies in 1964?
    • Consider the structure of the speech. What is the central focus or thesis? This quote will help: “This problem of moral and spiritual lag, which constitutes modern man’s chief dilemma, expresses itself in three larger problems which grow out of man’s ethical infantilism. Each of these problems, while appearing to be separate and isolated, is inextricably bound to the other. I refer to racial injustice, poverty, and war.
      • What evidence does he provide of “moral and spiritual lag”?
      • How does “moral and spiritual lag” lead to (i.e. cause) “racial injustice, poverty, and war”? What arguments does he make to link these large problems to the fundamental problem?
      • What evidence does he offer for the problems of each of the problems of “racial injustice, poverty, and war”?

 

Questions for Discussion after You Read
Continue your conversation (or as we have called it above, written correspondence) with the material. Review the notes you have taken. Write down how you think Dr. King would respond to the questions you posed for him. Take some time to look up the meaning of words you did not understand. Make an effort to revisit the speech and think through parts where you did not clearly follow his argument. Re-read and consider the items you underlined or marked as important. Do you still see these as essential to the argument? Are these lines still important?

  1. Dr. King begins with a list of mankind’s accomplishments in the decade(s) leading up to his lecture in 1964. How much higher are the “peaks of scientific success” for the “modern man” of 2017?
    • What are the most important technological advancements in the past 50 years?
    • Are these advancements entirely good, or are there moral challenges present? In other words, can these new inventions be used for good, for evil, or both?
    • How do you think we can effectively ensure that new technology is not used to harm others?
    • How can we become more aware of the possible dangers on the other side of the coin for new inventions and innovations which we use to make our lives easier?
  2. Do you agree with Dr. King’s assessment that “the richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually? Why do you feel this way?
  3. Dr. King identifies three problems as symptoms as part of a larger problem.
    • Has humanity made progress in resolving racial injustice?
    • Have we adequately addressed problems of poverty?
    • Is war still a major issue threatening individuals and societies today? In an era without wars between powerful states, are civil wars and terrorism central threats to humanity’s continued existence (both in terms of general survival and of humans as “human”)?
  4. Dr. King attributes these three problems to a “moral and spiritual lag”, the greater problem. If Dr. King were delivering this lecture today, are there additional widespread problems he would identify as symptomatic of the difference between our moral progress and technological progress? What are these new issues?
  5. How can education be a vehicle through which we address the “moral and spiritual lag”?
    • Does your educational plan at Catawba include both coursework that is designed to help you master technical skills to acquire and hold a job and coursework that helps you enrich your personal and moral skill set? In short, have you considered not only what skills you need to have to make a living, but also the skills you need to live ethically or well?
    • What opportunities for personal moral growth exist outside of the classroom at Catawba College? 


Items to Consider Reading to Continue the Conversation

By Dr. King

  • Letter from Birmingham Jail.

By Others

  • Gandhi: “On Economic and Moral Progress”
  • Fredrick Douglass: “Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass”

Read Works by Those Dr. King References (Or At Least Learn Who They Are)

  1. Henry David Thoreau
  2. Alfred North Whitehead
  3. Victor Hugo
  4. Mohandas K. Gandhi
  5. Thomas Malthus
  6. Kirtley Mather
  7. John Donne
  8. Homer
  9. Friedrich Nietzsche
  10. Dante Alighieri
  11. Arnold Toynbee

Read Works Dr. King References

  1. Genesis
  2. Exodus
  3. Job
  4. Isiah
  5. 1 John
  6. The Odyssey