Education rewards its possessors with freedom of the mind as well as success in the marketplace. Nothing adds to a life like opening the doors of the brain and allowing ideas to enter and state their cases. The personal benefits of education are multiple. Learning brings self-satisfaction as well as respect in the community, and financial rewards usually follow.
On a societal level, the advantages of education are equally striking. Advanced reading levels produce smaller families, higher-quality lifestyles, and improved thinking that advances communities. Bequeathing financial assets to progeny is an admirable goal, but providing knowledge that allows offspring to thrive independently is an even finer end.
Everyone has a fundamental right to access the greatest works written. This requires more than simply making the great books available through libraries, bookstores, and booksellers’ websites. We must also encourage their inclusion in high-school and college curricula. Reading is important, but reading the right words is crucial to our advancement.
When students reach academic impasses, one temptation is to direct them to vocational programs whose curricula are in line with what they may end up doing in the workplace. A surreptitious way of couching this caste-forming concept is to offer a “vocational option” as if it were a different-but-equal career path, like choosing between nursing and architecture.
Nothing could be further from the truth, and few ideas are more stratifying and unfair. All persons have an inherent right to read and discuss the classics, which after all, stand as the last bastion between them and slavery. The ideas propounded in those works, if properly understood by a critical mass of citizens, will protect them far more certainly than a command of the skills of any trade. Everyone must know enough about the theoretical underpinnings of society to be able to discuss its tenets and act (vote, sit on juries, obey laws, run for office, dissent, emigrate) accordingly.
Many wonderful writings exist that contribute positively to the advancement of a liberal education. Reading such works should be a goal for all of us, and doing so is a lifetime endeavor that we must encourage one another to adopt.
Some of these works, however, make such dramatic contributions to our lives that they should be required reading before leaving school. I would like to suggest eight masterpieces that every American should read before reaching the age of twenty:
1. Dialogue Concerning The Two Chief World Systems, by Galileo GalileiThis fine book is a delectable repast for students’ intellectual tables. The simplicity and elegance of the mathematical and geometrical principles upon which Galileo expounds both delight and inform the reader. His use of dialogue among Salviati, Sagredo, and Simplicio makes for easy and entertaining reading. Geometry is part of most high-school curricula, and no student should pass through that portal without reading and discussing this important work.
2. Benjamin Franklin’s AutobiographyThis autobiography deserves attention for several reasons. First, it is reputed to be the most important autobiography ever written. Second, the style is that of an experienced writer who is able to express himself efficiently, lucidly, and gracefully. Third, Franklin describes his development as a highly motivated and disciplined person, and his success in the private and public sectors of his time comes as no surprise to the reader. In addition, he lays out thirteen virtues that he believes will assist their practitioners to become better human beings.
3. Origin of Species, by Charles DarwinFrom time to time, I engage in conversation with people about the theory of evolution. The discussion is usually dissatisfying, because most of them have never read the main treatise on the subject—Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species.
I shall not delve into the arguments made in those encounters, but I will say that I have been dismayed by folks who opine on evolution and expound on Darwin’s theory while knowing absolutely nothing about the topic. Now, when I discover that the person has not read the book, I simply change the subject.
4. The Federalist Papers, by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John JayThe founding fathers of the United States of America were exceptional men who acted exceptionally in exceptional times. The result of their efforts was the United States Constitution, a document that stands out in history as a turning point in the development of civilization. The Federalist Papers is a series of essays written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay with the goal of promoting the Constitution’s ratification. No high-school curriculum is complete without it.
5. The History of Civilization in Europe, by François GuizotThis fascinating book, which comprises a series of fourteen lectures given by François Guizot in Paris in 1828, is credited with being the best general history of Europe ever written. The lecture format lends itself well to classroom study and discussion, and the clarity of the writing and synthesis of the ideas make it especially attractive for students in their late teens.
6. Letter from the Birmingham City Jail, by Martin Luther KingNo liberal course of study is complete without reading and discussing the letter written by Martin Luther King while he was incarcerated in Birmingham, Alabama. The historical propriety, the succinctness of the writing, and the extraordinary equilibrium of the author make it an easy choice for social-science classrooms in the United States. The point of studying it is not only to raise students’ consciousnesses regarding the undeniable wrongs referred to in the piece, but also to impress upon them the fairness and balance that a few great leaders are able to acquire.
7. Crito, by PlatoThis short piece consists of a dialogue between Socrates and his good friend Crito and argues in favor of obeying the rule of law. On the day before Socrates’ execution, Crito visits him in jail and tries to persuade him to escape. After presenting an argument that favors adherence to laws once one has submitted to the system that creates them, Socrates refuses to go.
Whether teacher or student agrees that someone who has acquiesced to the laws of a place must always obey them is immaterial. The dialogue presents an excellent starting point for a discussion of the pros and cons of following the law when it appears to work unjustly in an individual case.
8. The Campaigns of Alexander (the Great), by ArrianIn the study of the development of civilization, dates carry some importance. An exact date is usually of little consequence, but knowing rough dates (sometimes the century is sufficient) of selected lives and events is helpful.
For instance, it is useful to know that Socrates lived in the second half of the fifth century B.C., that Plato was his student, that Aristotle was Plato’s student, and that Alexander the Great was Aristotle’s student. Together, these four important lives form a reference point in history that, once learned, orients students with respect to other historical events that take place around that time.
This is only one of the reasons that Arrian’s fine work chronicling the expedition of Alexander is important. The book is not long and is written in language simple and direct enough for high-school students to read and digest. Alexander’s campaigns are exciting, and this reading experience will help students overcome misgivings about studying the works of antiquity.
In selecting this short list of readings for students in their late teens, I have used several criteria. First, the work must have made a significant contribution to the development of civilization. Second, the piece must be written simply enough for young minds to comprehend. Third, it must capture the interest of students who do not have a lot of other preparation. Fourth, it must have stood the test of time. (I have made an exception on this point for Martin Luther King’s letter.)
This reading list is not exhaustive. In the future, I shall present additional nonfiction lists as well as lists of important works of fiction.