In 1984, as Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Bill Bennett asked Pulitzer Prize winning columnist George Will for a list of ten books he thought every graduating high school student should have read– below is the column George Will wrote on that list, from the August 12, 1984 issue of The Washington Post:
Even when unbidden, my readers, who bristle with opinions, fly to their pens to riddle me with lists of my errors and shortcomings. When actually invited, as they recently were by me, to sound off, they paw the earth like war horses hearing a trumpet’s blast. Herewith a report on my readers’ — and others’ — thoughts on reading.
William Bennett, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, asked me, among others, to list 10 works that every American should read before graduating from high school. Six weeks ago I put my list in a column and invited readers to mail their own lists to Bennett. They and others invited by him have done so. The results are still rolling in from outlying precincts, but the trend (42 states have been heard from) is clear, and
The aim was to see if there is a consensus among thoughtful people about educational essentials. There is.
My list was: the Bible (portions), Aristotle’s “Politics,” Plato’s “Apology” and “Crito,” Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” “The Federalist Papers,” Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” the Lincoln-Douglas debates, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” Cardinal Newman’s “Idea of a University.”
The “Top 30” from persons writing to Bennett are: Shakespeare (especially “Macbeth” and “Hamlet”), American documents (the Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Gettysburg Address), “Huckleberry Finn,” the Bible, Homer’s (“Odyssey,” “Iliad”), Dickens’ (“Great Expectations,” “Tale of Two Cities”), Plato’s “Republic,” John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath,” Hawthorne’s “Scarlet Letter,” Sophocles’ “Oedipus,” Melville’s “Moby Dick,” Orwell’s “1984,” Thoreau’s “Walden,” Robert Frost’s poems, Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” The Communist Manifesto, Aristotle’s “Politics,” Emily Dickinson’s poems, Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” Faulkner (several novels suggested), Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye,” Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” Emerson (essays and poems), Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” Vergil’s “Aeneid.”
The first four were landslide winners listed by 71, 50, 49 and 48 percent of all respondents. Although the novel is the most frequently mentioned genre, aside from Steinbeck, Faulkner and Salinger, contemporary authors were not nominated. Every selection in the first, second and third “10s” is clearly worthy. In the outpouring of responses there are few items pertaining to such contemporary preoccupations as feminism and nuclear weapons.
Peter Jay of the Baltimore Sun wisely argues for a book about war — the common soldier’s experience of it — such as Stephen Crane’s “The Red Badge of Courage” or Siegfried Sassoon’s “Memoirs of an Infantry Officer.” Some readers suggested alternatives to Wiesel’s “Night” as introductions to totalitarianism. Suggestions included Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon” and Solzhenitsyn’s “Gulag Archipelago.” Ralph Ellison’s novel, “Invisible Man,” and Lorraine Hansberry’s play, “A Raisin in the Sun,” were works mentioned pertaining to black experience in America.
Some respondents, including Robert Penn Warren, believe the list should include something on science. Many suggest Darwin’s “Origin of Species.” J. Carter Brown, director the National Gallery of Art, reasonably finds fault with an exclusive focus on the written word. He includes in his list of 10 these four works: the Parthenon and its sculpture, Chartres Cathedral, Michelangelo’s ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion.”
The “Top 30” includes five authors of political texts (Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Tocqueville, Marx). It includes no works of analysis or interpretation, although Edith Hamilton’s “Mythology” and Robert Heilbroner’s “The Worldly Philosophers,” a study of great economists, were mentioned.
Bennett notes that any 10 works from the “Top 30” would be a substantial improvement on what is read in many schools. From the responses, he concludes that when literate America clears its head and throat it makes much sense.
There is astonishingly little nonsense in the responses. One reader includes, in an otherwise excellent list, “the U.N. Charter.” Come now: There is better fiction at any airport book rack.
Another nutty suggestion — “Naked Lunch,” an unintelligible novel by William Burroughs — came from a graduating senior at a Massachusetts high school.
In her letter to Bennett that senior said, “Let’s not forget that George Will may be a little out of touch with the day-to-day realities of the majority of today’s graduating seniors.”
True. And remaining out of touch is a goal of my life.
But concerning the inner lives of high-school seniors, I note with approval that Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, suggests Marlow’s “Dr. Faustus” for high-school students, on the sensible ground that “Dante and Goethe can wait for college, the devil can’t.”