Achieving First-Rate Intelligence: Teachings of the 2020 One Book SD

Check out Unfollow for Your Virtual Book Club for $25

By Ryan Woodard
Throughout the history of the One Book program, the South Dakota Humanities Council has selected books that propel our mission, helping us create a more well-read and, by extension, more engaged and thoughtful state of South Dakota. The 2020 One Book South Dakota accomplishes those things — and more. Not only was it written by a South Dakotan, but Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church may also be the first One Book in the program's 18-year history to offer life lessons, learned firsthand by the author, Megan Phelps-Roper of Clark, SD, related to every facet of our mission statement: "The South Dakota Humanities Council celebrates literature, promotes civil conversation, and tells the stories that define our state."

Phelps-Roper celebrates literature, citing classic novels that paved her path to enlightenment, and the portion of the memoir that unfolds in South Dakota briefly but firmly defines our state which, for the author, offers a rural haven of natural beauty, refuge, anonymity and "Midwest nice" for someone who desperately needs it. However, because the author is a former ideological extremist, and because she articulates her evolving ideology with a reasoned approach to theology, her most profound advice is on civility — how it can be achieved by civil conversation.

Civility May Unite Us

Discourse in 2020 is not often civil. Discussions of public policy, race, religion and politics tend to devolve into vitriol and insults, as people gravitate toward extreme positions and refuse to consider the middle ground. Civility may indeed unite our fractured society if we are patient enough to learn it, and therein lies the problem: our attention spans are short these days.

Deeply rooted in the humanities discipline, civility is a form of humanities-driven intelligence acquired gradually by reading, understanding and embracing other perspectives in literature and life. Taking the idea a step further, the legendary F. Scott Fitzgerald said to live in consideration of others was to live intellectually.

"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function," he said in his essay "The Crack-Up," a soliloquy of lessons learned at age 39. Having captured in fewer than 50,000 words the essence of American culture with The Great Gatsby, considered by many as The Great American Novel, Fitzgerald was an expert on human behavior and, by extension, the humanities.

Fitzgerald's logic dictates that single-minded people who dismiss other opinions have not achieved "first-rate intelligence." His quote, a vivid distillation of a complex idea, unfolds as a teachable moment, in textbook fashion (no pun intended), in Unfollow. How?

Megan Phelps-Roper (right) discusses her book Unfollow with SDPB host Lori Walsh at the 2019 South Dakota Festival of Books in Deadwood. Phelps-Roper will return to the 2020 event in Brookings Oct. 2-4 as the One Book SD author. 

A Transformation

When the book starts, Phelps-Roper is a young member of the dogmatic Westboro Baptist Church who would have scoffed at Fitzgerald's quote and, had there actually been such a test, failed miserably. Her extremist family forces its viewpoints; she spends her formative years shouting down bereaved families and people with different opinions.

As a protestor, she demonstrates with a large picket sign and a single idea in her head: her family IS right.

Throughout the book, she undergoes the kind of character arc that novelists dream of. Phelps-
Roper hints at her life transformation on the very first page of her memoir with an epigraph suggesting the wisdom of inclusivity from – guess who?

"Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope." – F. Scott Fitzgerald

What changed her mind? We hope you read the book and find out. What we can tell you: the author endured a heartbreaking series of events that gave her perspective beyond her years, leading her, before age 30, to the same conclusion that an emotionally-battered Fitzgerald (the essay was called "The Crack-Up" for a reason) wrote about at 39.

"Doubt causes us to hold a strong position a bit more loosely, such that an acknowledgment of ignorance or error doesn't crush our sense of self or leave us totally unmoored if our position proves untenable," she writes. "Certainty is the opposite: It hampers inquiry and hinders growth."

Enlightened by her experiences and by classics from Fitzgerald, Hemingway and others, she has found a new home in South Dakota, and a new career: author and activist. She has learned that her perspective is one of many — that she is not always right. Nobody is. She changed. Civil conversations can be had in our country if others are also willing to change, to learn humanities-driven critical thinking skills and apply them to their interpersonal relationships and interactions.

Reading and Expanding Attributes

Reading expands perspective, intelligence, empathy. These skills are necessary for a civil conversation, which requires both parties to use "first-rate intelligence" to realize that the other person might be correct.

We selected Phelps-Roper, in part, because she can encourage civil conversations and further our mission. She has lived through a monumental change, and by reading her book, you will encounter the lessons that changed her. These lessons are essential. Because we live in a "civilization," might it be possible that civility — the ability to relate to others on a personal level, to give context to events and conversations and, therefore, to harness the intelligence of being human — is the most critical skill of all?

Check Out 'Unfollow' for your Book Club

While we have altered the process due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we are continuing our Book Club to Go program, which, under normal circumstances, provides books for your club and an optional discussion leader for just $50.

Now, to accommodate your virtual book club, you can check out any book from our Lending Library, including the 2020 One Book South Dakota, for the reduced fee of $25 to cover postage. We will mail a box of books you can distribute to your members. We also have scholars who have generously agreed to facilitate virtual discussions.