The basis of the day long argument survey from August 1984 of books every high school graduate should read before moving on to college. The list included such notables as Shakespeare, the Bible, Huck Finn, and the Declaration of Independence. Weightier books made the list as well — Aristotle’s Politics, Plato’s Republic, de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Virgil’s Aeneid and others.
Two comments are worth sharing, and neither of them favorable to what I would call a rather light list. The first from the esteemed Ramesh Ponnuru:
Plato? Aristotle? Tocqueville? For every high-school student to read before graduation? Not unless the dropout rate rises considerably.
This was before John Derbyshire chimed in as well with his thoughts to the list:
Reading for duty is a miserable business, from which little is gained. It’s much better, certainly for teens, to read second-rate stuff that engages one’s attention, than classics that leave you cold. In my own teens I read almost nothing but science fiction. (My son, though not much of a reader, seems inclined the same way.)
If you read a book without pleasure, it won’t “stick.” I read The Great Gatsby from a sense of duty — I was conscientiously trying to Americanize myself — back in the 1980s, but I couldn’t tell you a thing about it. Isn’t there an automobile accident in there somewhere? To this day I haven’t read Catcher in the Rye. Probably I shall go to my grave not having read it.
There’s some truth to this. Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby were books I had to literally suffer through during my public schooling days. Gatsby was something I was forced to read back in 7th grade of all things… and like Derbyshire, I couldn’t tell you a damn thing about the book.
Most of the fiction books I had very little interest in reading, as well as the vast majority of Americana passing for culture. Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau, Salinger, Hawthorne, Melville, and Cooper never held a candle to the literary giants Waldenbooks pushed upon me: Tom Clancy, Ralph Peters, Larry Bond and other varieties of the techno-thriller were far more exciting and relevant to the world stage than Whitman singing the praises of the “body electric” in poetry.
Still, there were a handful that I enjoyed. As much as I initially hated reading it, Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth was probably one of the better novels I’ve read during high school. Animal Farm
and 1984 were also fascinating reads. The poetry of Robert Frost is probably about the only modern poet I appreciated to any degree.
Sadly, my liberal arts education never exposed me to the classics. Aristotle, Plato, and Virgil were all glaringly omitted. Sophocles Oedipus Tyrannus was presented in some bastardized fashion, as were the works of Shakespeare and Chaucer.
The vast majority of the thought-provoking ideas I was searching for as a high school student — Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant, Nietzsche, Nozick, Boethius, Tacitus, Aeschylus, Hayek, Gibbon, Rousseau, Belloc, Wittgenstein, Popper, Russell, Caesar, Sophocles, Socrates, Sartre, Heidegger, Jefferson, Paine, Henry, Franklin, Adams, Madison, Hamilton, Lincoln, T.R. Roosevelt, FDR, Kennedy (Jack and Robert), Reagan, MLK Jr., Douglass, Durant, Paul Johnson, Runciman, Treadgold — were all buried under tests, the drone of homework, a 45-minute/7 subject class schedule, the constant shuffling of students and the mindset of the lowest common denominator.
(DISCLAIMER: Obviously, if you were one of my teachers during high school or middle school, they will instantly tell you I was the worst type of student. Smart, perhaps… but tragically unwilling to do schoolwork. They tried!)
Now I don’t necessarily blame the public school system per se for not being able to teach fundamentals. I blame the liberal arts curriculum, a system of tenure, degrees in pedagogy, and a basic unwillingness of some teachers to instruct how their subject has practical use. After all, we’re Americans — if we can’t use it, then what possible good can it be to our pragmatic minds?!
As an incoming college freshman, three things are readily apparent to most professors. High school students cannot read, cannot write, and painfully cannot think
. As a prospective employer, it’s not uncommon to see similar problems no matter what the profession, from executive level down to flipping burgers.
Now the good news for those who survive their education is that this places them in an excellent situation. Public schools are the best sort of meritocracy in the sense that if you survive without having your mind separated from reality, you will do quite well. Public school almost has to graze you in order to become beneficial. The students know it, the teachers know it, the administrators don’t care, and most folks don’t even really know how bad it is — but no one wants to fix the problem.
But I digress. Books.
By the time my sons and daughters are ready for the 9th grade, here are a list of books I expect them to have already digested in some form or another:
- The Holy Bible
- The Catechism of the Catholic Church
- Hackett’s Writing References (or whatever variation is on the market)
- Writing With Sources
- The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution
- Introductions on Logic, Rhetoric, and Ethics
- Further Introductions on Linguistics and Semiotics
- A handbook on epistemology
- Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics
- Hesse’s Siddhartha
- Familiar with the poetry of Robert Frost
- Familiar with the plays of Shakespeare
- And a thorough knowledge of chess and the grandmasters
Sounds daunting? You should ask my oldest son about either the Declaration or the Constitution. Ask him about his chess pieces and which opening moves are best. Ask him why we know things. Or ask him any of his prayers. English or Latin — your choice.
The bottom line is that the list drafted in August 1984 is vapid in its own right, full of the same diet of pop culture we’ve choked ourselves on over the past 50 years in public education. Don’t worry — if you don’t get these books in high school, a coterie of graduate students will be sure to force it into the college freshmen of America at some point.
The question is twofold. First, why are we reading this stuff — and is it even worth it? Second, is it even worth handing students what impresses educated minds if the students themselves aren’t grounded in fundamentals?
Once upon a time, it used to be required of any learned individual to have educated themselves in the classics. Today, most students pay lip service to the classics.
The best part about an education is when you can get out and read the stuff you always wanted to read. Or to write the book that needs to be written. But the steady diet of crap? America’s education system would do far better to raise our expectations rather than stare at a list recommended for high school students 25 years earlier with a slightly open mouth.
Students are ready for it, teachers are ready for it. Those administrators brave enough to bring back a classical education will be rewarded with outstanding students. Instead of looking at this list and saying “no way” it would be far better to say “why not” and get our kids reading again.