Some Introductory Comments to the Reading List .................................... 2
The Reading List ........................................................................................12
The University of Chicago Great Books List .............................................103
Well-Read Students: Top 30 books ............................................................105
A List of Lists .............................................................................................106
THE PURPOSE AND THE NEED
Cardinal Newman comes close to the true meaning of education in his series of lectures entitled Idea of a University (1852). I am condensing Section 10 of Discourse VII here.
“If then a practical end must be assigned…” to a University degree, I say that it is that of training good members of society in the art of living with people, and in fitness for the world. University education is not content with forming just the economist or the engineer. It aims also at raising the intellectual level of society, at cultivating the public mind, and at supplying true principles of popular enthusiasm. It gives a man a clear conscious view of his own opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, and an eloquence in expressing them. It teaches him to see things as they are, to disentangle a skein of thought…and to have the repose of mind of a mind that lives in itself while it lives in the world… a mind that enlightens and pleases the society into which it travels and a mind that has resources for its happiness at home when it cannot go into society.
Newman summarizes here what most teachers trained in an academic discipline hold to be the most important aspect of a proper education: the cultivation of one’s mind for one’s own sake and for the sake of others with whom one comes into contact, and the developing of a sound mind that can see things in their right prospect and can form wise judgments so that one can live life with pleasure and satisfaction. An uncultivated mind is like a weed patch: considerably less productive and less rewarding to its owner than it ought to be.
Most educated people of the last few centuries have been in agreement that, in addition to specialized professional or vocational knowledge, all students would profit from a considerable contact with the humanities --- especially literature--- because literature records in the most direct way the accumulated experience of the race and what it means to be a human being, and they believed that this knowledge would contribute directly to the development of sound judgment and a satisfying philosophy of life, as well as providing a common background of cultural information that simplifies communication among educated people. Literature requirements for all students intending to take a degree were common up until about 1930 in most colleges.
Modern American colleges, except for a very few private institutions, have regrettably now moved so far from Newman’s ideal that it seems almost ludicrous to suppose that they are much concerned with the development of a truly educated student or with the cultivation of his or her mind. Except for a few token requirements of a fairly undiscriminating nature, the colleges have abdicated their responsibility for prescribing the courses most appropriate for a liberal education, course requiring extensive reading and study of the great writers and thinkers of the past. Instead, they offer a wide variety of mostly non-sequential courses (which therefore develop no logical sequence of information), and many of these courses are too superficial or too much specialized in content to be really useful in imparting a liberal education. The colleges then expect the students, whose educational background is insufficient to judge the courses, to choose, wisely or foolishly, the components of their own education. The United States appears to be the only nation in which this kind of educational anarchy flourishes. Almost all other nations, many as democratic as the U. S., believe that education is too precious and too costly to be treated in such a haphazard way, and they believe also that there is still a core of common knowledge that all educated people should have.
There are several reasons for the loss of liberal and cultural education in the U. S., and some of them are good reasons --- the reasons, in fact, are far better than the unhappy results they have produced.
(1) The standard liberal education in the U. S., based on the curricula of schools such as Harvard and Yale, and Oxford and Cambridge in England, and heavily oriented toward the Greek and Latin classics, modern literature, history, philosophy, and fine arts, was felt to be an education for the political and economic elite, who were primarily interested in maintaining the status quo. (The privileged did not want education related to current social, political, ethical, racial, or economic problems).
Growing minority groups, whose cultural backgrounds sometimes differ from the standard Western European culture emphasized in the traditional liberal-arts program, felt that their interests were not included in the traditional program, and disadvantaged groups of various kinds felt that their concerns were primarily economic and political rather than cultural.
As a result of such thinking and pressures, many schools in the last thirty years have dropped most of their remaining liberal-arts requirements, thus ceasing to function as colleges in most of the traditional ways and turning themselves into educational cafeterias where students drop in and out, picking up largely unrelated dishes here and there to form usually an indigestible meal of little nutritional value. To preserve the semblance of education, degrees are still given for a collection of a certain number of units in these random samplings, but the results often fail to comprise an education any more (to mix metaphors) than a collection of automobile parts selected at random will go together to make up a car.
(2) It was felt that in the U.S., as an example of democracy, schools should operate as a microcosm of society, and therefore that the students should be free to choose their own courses without much regard to meeting any overall requirements of a core of common background knowledge and culture.
(3) In the last 40 years, all schools (elementary through college) have fallen under the control of professional administrators (or managers, as they now sometimes call themselves) who are trained in business administration or school finance instead of a traditional academic discipline, and who have often little regard for the academic process, or concern with true education, but who are, instead, concerned with maximizing numbers of students and state funding.
(4) Pernicious educational philosophies beginning with Dewey and others in the 1920’s stressed that education for daily living was more important than education for life (i.e., true education of the mind). While it is obviously important to teach practical matters, such as how to calculate your income tax, many high schools went so far as to concentrate entirely on “life-adjustment” courses as a replacement for courses of basis content that were needed as foundation for later work. English grammar was replaced by idle class exchanges of uninformed opinion, foreign language was discarded because it had no everyday application in the eyes of administrators and ill-trained teachers who didn’t know any foreign language, history became, instead of fact needed to understand the modern world, pointless “relevant” discussion of current events. The “new math” almost killed acquisition of mathematical skills needed for more advanced mathematics.
(5) There has always been an unfortunate anti-intellectual attitude among most people in the U. S., stemming, perhaps, from frontier days when there was thought to be no time for learning. Those days are gone, and today’s technically and socially complex society requires detailed learning. But the attitude prevails, especially among poorly educated people, and it discourages many American students from making the effort to excel in their studies. In most other countries, solid learning is considered, as it should be, an honor and an asset.
(6) There has never been a moneyed, leisure class in the U.S., like the aristocracies of Europe, which had, as one of their few useful activities, the devotion of their resources to the support and pursuit of knowledge and promotion of culture in the arts. De Tocqueville, in his famous study of American democracy (1835-40), listed the lack of a leisure class as one of the disadvantages of our democratic system that would prevent our development into a truly civilized nation. America has, in fact, substituted for this kind of excellence another standard --- a high standard of living for a large fraction of its people. While this is a praiseworthy standard and one that the world has sought to imitate, no degree of prosperity compensates an intelligent man or woman for a lack of culture and knowledge.
(7) Because the U. S. has enjoyed a high standard of living, poorly educated people have usually been able to find relatively highly paid jobs, and this has led to the widespread belief that education is not necessary to be able to live a comfortable life, and also to the equally fallacious belief that the only purpose of education is to obtain training for some kind of job. As a matter of fact, no one, until the last 40 years in the U.S., ever had the strange notion that education had much to do with preparation for employment. Education had as its goal cultivating the mind to prepare a man or woman to enjoy the culture to which he or she was an heir (instead of living a barren life that a primitive being who had no heritage of culture might have led), making it possible to enjoy the fruits of civilization’s great accomplishments in literature, the arts, philosophy, and the sciences. Only recently, and primarily in the U.S., where larger and larger fractions of high-school graduates who have very few intellectual or cultural interests are attending colleges, have the colleges converted themselves into vocational or professional training institutions.
There are strong arguments in favor of diversity in college courses rather than a degree of uniformity produced by some system of minimal requirements in the liberal arts. One such argument is that the schools in a democracy should reflect the wishes of the people who support them, and if the people want the schools to be low-culture, high-vocational institutions, their wishes ought to be considered. But there is a stronger argument for not compromising true principles of education --- for not converting the colleges, whose primary duty is the transmission of the cultural heritage and the teaching of the basics needed to provide the foundation for specialized professional work (engineering, medicine, law, etc.), into institutions for the correction of social evils, community recreation centers, vocational training centers, special-interest-groups’ indoctrination courses, etc. at the expense of the established liberal-arts, traditional, cultural curriculum. The stronger argument is that schools are charged with the preservation of the democratic way of life, and they have the obligation to produce an informed, literate citizenry who have been educated in the liberal principles of truth with respect for honesty, justice, democracy in practice, and humanity, without which a free society cannot survive. The restraints that a government imposes upon its people must increase and become more irksome in proportion to the extent to which its citizens depart in their thinking and living from the high principles of the traditional liberal-arts education. Students who go through college and learn nothing except how to ear a living --- who learn nothing of beauty, culture, history, humanity, who think that it is all right to cheat their customers and cheat on their income tax and cheat on the quality of their goods or services --- surely contribute to the downfall of our free society.
B. WHY YOU SHOULD DO SOME READING
Here are some remarks touching upon the need for students to undertake a conscientious program of cultural reading and self-education.
You are probably a victim of a sub-standard education.
If you are a U. S. high-school graduate, you are, regrettably, a victim of a sub-standard education. While students in most of the other leading nations of the world have been learning the basic facts of history, literature of their own (and other) countries, mathematics, science, music, art, religion and philosophy, and how to write and speak their own language with style and eloquence as well as how to get along in one or two foreign languages, from grades 7 through 12, U.S. students spend most of this time, when the mind is most acquisitive and retentive, in acquiring and retaining very little --- learning very few facts of history, art, science, or mathematics, reading almost none of the great literature of their own language, acquiring almost no ability in speaking or writing effectively or even correctly, not learning to recognize or appreciate great music or even to read music, not learning even the names of the great philosophers whose writings European students are expected to be able to discuss with some understanding, gaining no information about the structure of their own language or any other language
An average European 8th grade schoolchild speaks and writes better, and has more information about things that matter (the solid basic subjects upon which other knowledge is built) than ¾ of American high-school graduates have. Although the U.S. spends more per capita on education than other nations do, American high-school graduates are rather laughingly regarded throughout the world as ignoramuses --- happy, probably, with a lot of material goods, but sadly uninformed, childish in knowledge and understanding, primitive or naïve in emotional responses, incapable of grasping or discussing any serious issue. (This does not mean that American college graduates are considered ignorant in their fields of specialization; especially in business and technical fields, U.S. graduates are among the best, partly because their training depends upon some expensive equipment and progressive methods, of which the U.S. has a lot). What the graduates do not have is true education or cultural background.
2. What can you talk to other people about?
The kinds of studies that help to cultivate the mind (in addition, of course to one’s major field of study) are commonly agreed upon (by educated people) to be those termed the humanities – history, philosophy, the fine arts and, especially, literature.
No amount of specialized training in the sciences or in technical subjects such as mathematics or engineering will make up for the background that one fails to obtain if he fails to read some of the best literature and the most influential literature of Western civilization. We who are interested in physics, chemistry, mathematics, engineering, presumably find these subjects enjoyable and even fascinating, but we must bear in mind that to most of our acquaintances, these subjects are dull because the subjects deal with quantitative relations and things, rather than with emotions and people, and they deal with facts rather than opinions. They are not the kinds of subjects that can easily be talked about on social occasions because they permit no interchange of ideas based on general experience or general knowledge, but can only be discussed or enjoyed by other specialists.
For these reasons, society has come to regard the man or woman who knows only a technical subject, however well he may know it and however abstruse its character, as rather uneducated and rather tiresome. Perhaps it’s because there is relatively little opportunity for the wit, humor, and interplay of high intellectual spirits about quantitative subjects that characterize the best conversation of educated people, when they are obliged to talk about quantitative subjects such as physics and mathematics; these subjects restrict the playful imagination because they go by fixed rules, which one must know. (Of course, there is unlimited imagination in the discussion of advanced topics of physics between experts, but that’s not social conversation).
In his book, The Two Cultures, the English physicist and novelist, C.P. Snow, remarks that his acquaintances in the humanities were scornful of any technical man who was not reasonably familiar with a few Shakespeare plays, but, on the other hand, they considered it very unreasonable that a technical man would expect them, as humanities majors, to know some of the basic laws of nature, such as the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and what it implies about order and disorder in the universe. Society’s attitude is summed up in the familiar saying, “Great minds discuss ideas, mediocre minds discuss people, and small minds discuss things”. The saying is considerably in error, of course --- when engineers talk about some technical “things”, they deal with quite complex ideas of the physical world. But the unhappy fact is that society will think you an uneducated bore if you know nothing besides a technical or scientific subject.
A man or woman who knows nothing but a technical subject is usually not only dull company for others but also dull company for himself or herself. If he has acquired no interests in literature, art, music, philosophy, drama, and history, he has pretty well cut himself off from the society of the most interesting people around him, and he will have to confine his leisure activity to sports, hobbies and spectator activities. Unfamiliar topics that he hears about arouse no response in him because he has no information to start with. On the other hand, the broadly educated man is interested in almost everything he hears, because he can relate it to something he already knows, and he can contribute to a sensible discussion it. He has the confidence that so many narrowly trained technical people unfortunately lack --- a confidence that he knows the general background, if not the details, of almost any subject that arises --- and he has this confidence because he knows that he has acquired, from wide reading, as much information as those around him. It isn’t snobbery that the well-educated man seeks or manifests; it’s a feeling of self-confidence and assurance that is difficult to describe but easy to detect.
The man or woman who will not take the time and put forth the effort to acquire some knowledge of literature and other cultural subjects in youth is, as the cliché goes, to be pitied rather than scorned --- although he will probably be both pitied and scorned by most educated people --- because he has chosen to live his life at a low level of intellectual activity and interest that most educated people find intolerable. A life of television and physical activities and hobbies falls quite a bit short of the pleasure and excitement of intellectual social intercourse --- about as far short as hamburger falls of beef Stroganov or boeuf en croustade, or boiled potatoes of the puffed potatoes served in French restaurants. Of course, a man who has lived on boiled potatoes all his life will probably declare them to be nourishing, satisfying, and even tasty; if you try to tell him that there are indeed a lot better foods to be had, he will probably deny it. Similarly, some Physics 1D students who have never read anything seem amused and a little incredulous that anyone would expect them to educate themselves by reading some of the “great books” in order to get more out of life; they’ve decided upon their diet of boiled potatoes, and they’re determined to stick to that diet. Well, I’d say, let them --- but avoid them as social friends.
On the other hand, a great many sensible students will probably agree with my hypothesis that it is better to learn something of literature and the general culture than not to learn it; the hypothesis is proved, in fact, by the observation that almost all people who have learned something do not want to return to the state where they were ignorant of it. The problem, of course, is that a fair investment of time and effort is needed to develop a cultural background in literature --- or, indeed, to do anything else worthwhile, since the only admirable accomplishments are those that take time and effort to learn. Technical students are always short of time because of long assignments from physics teachers (and other such dedicated beings), and they need to make the best use of the little time they have, mostly during the summers, in acquiring a wider cultural background.
In the opinion of many educators who have experimented with “great books” programs, most students gain a more useful and general cultural background by selected reading in the great books or classics of Western civilization more efficiently and faster than they can gain it by any other method. This kin of reading is therefore advisable for technical students because it maximizes useful learning while minimizing the time to acquire it. A more roundabout way would be to choose a topic of interest and read a great deal about it, then branch off into related topics, and keep going. There is a danger in specialized reading before one has a good general background, however, and that is that the good general background will never develop. People who develop an all-absorbing interest in one or two things they know about are as tiresome to spend an evening with as those whose lives are filled with lurid events, like criminal lawyers and moose hunters.
It will help, of course, if you will choose wisely those few cultural electives that you have (or, better still, if you will take a couple of extra semesters and take some broadening courses --- unless you have a financial problem, there is really no good reason to rush out into the job market, because you have a long time ahead of you to work; spend another year in college).
Background courses ought to include at least the following:
History of Western Civilization.
English literature of the period of the best writers, roughly from Shakespeare to Shaw.
Introductory courses in art and music, unless you have already a performer’s knowledge.
At least two semesters of a foreign language; French is probably best, but Spanish is more useful these days.
Zoology or physiology or biology.
History of philosophy.
If these courses are supplemented with as much reading as you can do in the best books, you will come out of college (or you will enter your 30’s) with a fairly sound educational background. Most of the work needs to be done before job and marriage responsibilities set in; there is not much time after that. If you are lucky, you will meet in your upper-division or graduate work one or two students of similar and congenial interests who are also interested in reading and learning, with whom you will talk over many of life’s important questions and extend your knowledge and interests, modify your outlook on many issues toward a more informed, more humanely liberal one and become aware of what has been written and thought about many important questions by great writers and thinkers. It clarifies your thinking and outlook to know what has already been said about an issue; it also saves time in coming to conclusions. A good many hours may be spent, pleasantly but fruitlessly, in arguing over issues that have already been clarified by Plato or Mill or Darwin or in a story by Dickens or an essay by Emerson --- if one were only aware of what they had said.
This is the end of these rather extensive comments about the need for you to take some action to broaden your education by doing some reading.
C. SOME COMMENTS ABOUT THE CLASSICS OR GREAT-BOOKS LIST
There seemed to me no point in merely making a list of 200 or 300 titles of books that have come to be accepted as influential or great books --- those that form the background and common knowledge of people usually considered to be educated. Such lists can be found in the backs of books published in uniform series like the Modern Library editions and the Everyman series. Any librarian can also look up such a list for you, since many people have compiled such lists. (The remarkable thing is that the lists have such a high correlation of the same titles). People who are interested in such lists can refer to page 65 here (The University of Chicago Great Books List, probably the most famous one), and page 66, a summary of many lists made up by various authorities and famous people. Here, I have tried to do three things not usually done on such lists --- to choose a relatively small number of books that most educated people would be expected to have read and that would form their reference system, to give enough description of each work so that a student unfamiliar with literature will know what he is getting into (and, maybe, to pique his or her curiosity to the point of wanting to dip into the book), and to list from the longer works unlikely ever to be read in their entirety by technical students some of the most interesting and important passages so that they will gain some feeling for the author and his ideas or stories even if they don’t have time to read the whole work.
The setting down of any list always invites criticism, especially from those whose background or current interests lead them to spend much more time reading than I can spend. English teachers will naturally object to the inclusion of some books and the omission of others, and many will object to the idea of a list at all. Many people will object to the idea of selecting passages from certain long books instead of reading the whole thing, since it is universally regarded as bad form for the reader to tamper with the author’s work, reading one part and omitting another, and thus failing to grasp the work as a work of art in its entirety. My justification for making the list and selections is that, however inadequate, it is better than nothing if it will stimulate technical students to get started in developing their own cultural background by reading, even if they only manage one or two books a year.
I have made an effort to distinguish really basic works --- those most often referred to, perhaps, by educated people, and most influential in shaping our way of thinking --- and have marked them
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