A Call for Readings

Bill Bornschein | June 2, 2013

"Svaardvaard" Bill Bornschein

“Svaardvaard” Bill Bornschein

One of the best things about working with Becker in the classroom is that it provides such a great resource for continually seeing him anew through the eyes of students. They bring a fresh world of experience to the eternal dilemma Becker raises. My own teaching practice has gradually shifted away from explaining Becker  toward  allowing the students to respond to their initial exposure to Becker. Actually engaging a discrete,  distinct component of Becker’s thought in a direct and powerful way can open the door for student to follow up, not just intellectually, but existentially. This post is concerned with using Becker in the classroom and will conclude with a request that you suggest readings from the Becker canon that can be used effectively. Socratic method is the vehicle I am experimenting with and a brief word about the technique is in order. I am new to the formal technique myself and realize many colleagues may be more experienced, and so I welcome input on that front  as well.

Socratic method has as its goal the exercise of the mind in the pursuit of understanding. The purpose is not to come up with a final correct answer, but rather to engage a multi-layered idea, one open to interpretation and resistant to pat answers. How perfect. The entire sweep of Becker’s illuminating work is to ask the next question and avoid the easy out, and therefore it is genuinely compatible with the Socratic goal. For those of you familiar with Robert Pirsig’s Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance, this is approaching Becker in pursuit of The Good, rather than The True. Dialogue, rather than debate, is the vehicle for in-class conversation and this allows the idea in question to be held like a jewel to the light, the different facets on display. The endorphin rush of a great conversation or moment of insight can “set the hook” for further work with Becker in the classroom; “Hey class, remember that conversation we had a while back?”

The key to a good Socratic dialogue is the selection of the specific reading, piece of art or music to be worked with. Length can be from a couple lines to a couple paragraphs. The reading should be open to interpretation with layers of meaning to be explored. The topic should be broad and of existential significance, that is, something the students care about. Something that really challenges or moves people is best.  As examples, I’ve used the Edwin Arlington Robinson poem “Richard Cory” and entry  #49 from the James Carse book Finite And Infinite Games. One great way to judge a given reading for its utility is to see if you can ask a really good question of the text. Does the text raise more questions than it answers?  A question that you yourself struggle with would be best of all.

So would you consider reviewing your mental catalogue of favorite Becker passages and sending them to me in the comments section? I’m most familiar with Denial of Death and Escape From Evil, but anything at all is fine— and that includes Kierkegaard, Rank, and Leichty. I am very hopeful that we can generate a decent handful of readings that we can use to introduce Becker to a broader audience. Thanks in advance for your insight and assistance.


  1. I’ll chime in. I like to assign Freud’s “Future of an Illusion” (first few chapters). It works on two levels: 1) it exposes students to ‘first-hand’ Freud, and 2) his ideas coincide nicely with Becker’s synthesis. The feedback I get is always positive – students are very surprised by Freud when all they typically hear about him is second-hand sensationalism about penis envy and oedipal complexes.

    I also use pages from a rare Rollo May book ‘Existential Psychotherapy’ (1980) discussing symbols and myths.

    From Becker’s work, I tend to assign Chapter 3 from ‘The Birth and Death of Meaning’ and Chapters 1-3 from The Denial of Death.

    As a bit of a Camus scholar, I cannot resist wrapping things up with a discussion about the concepts of absurdity, relative meaning, and rebellion. Absurdity is fun because some students passionately get it, while the rest have an urge to challenge it, leading to some very fun discussions.

    One of my own methods in teaching this material involves using lucid images and descriptions whenever I can, paying close attention to timing, while using body gestures and facial expressions to try and elicit an emotional feeling to compliment the rational understanding of the topic. I tell my students that if they don’t feel something the first time they encounter this stuff (e.g. a shiver down their spine or an anxious flutter in the stomach), then they don’t fully ‘get it.’

    • Brad, thanks for these examples. Regarding your last point, a bit of theater never goes amiss at the high school level and I’m glad to see it in the university as well.

  2. Kirby, An interesting possibility for discussion is the idea of “hero”. For me it arises both out of Becker’s note on human evolution and out of the Bible as motivating Berrigan’s draft records burning which Becker mentions along with EB’s thoughts on heroism.

    In my book, THE AMERICAN GANDHI, I “I came across an article by Ernest Becker, ‘The Second Great Step in Human Evolution.’ Millions of years ago humans evolved from ape like creatures. In the process they developed human consciousness and symbolic language, the first step inhuman evolution.”

    Becker’s good friend, Harvey Bates, responded to Becker about “The Second Great Step in Human Evolution” in a letter to Ernest on March 20, 1968:

    “… In part IV, I see the specter of Nietzsche hanging over you still, the old picture of yourself as superman, hero, etc. with which I think I saw you struggling when you were teaching that course I used to sit in on at Newhouse Communications [at Syracuse University]. The second step in evolution, in a sense, is the creation of superman, you are on the edge of saying. My own emphasis is somehow, just the opposite (although I recognize my temptation to the superman idea to be just as strong as I suspect yours is). I’m emphasizing the identification with suffering god over the creator God … in our acceptance of our limits as a gift, not a curse. I agree, to accept our own limits, not those forced on us by our culture. … ”

    The correspondence between EB and Harvey Bates is reproduced in the Christian Century, Vol 94 1977, Letters from Ernest. There are several letters which compare to our ethos and would be of interest to students.

    Peace, Bernie Meyer

  3. I’d go with the section on Dostoevsky in Colin Wilson’s “The Outsider” along with Freuds Ego and the Id and Beyond The Pleasure Principle. Maybe some discussion on the power of the human imagination and looking at the work of great twentieth century painters (Picasso, Klee, Munch etc.) For the end of course dissertation would like to see people engage with human limitation from the lens of EBs line in DofD “A person cannot self actualise for his cause”

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