Education—Where to Begin

Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.

—Henry David Thoreau

As you saw last week, my mother decided to pick up her college education where she left off 70 years ago. How about you? When will you begin? 

Does it ever end?

EDUCA’TION, n. [L. educatio.] The bringing up, as of a child, instruction; formation of manners. Education comprehends all that series of instruction and discipline which is intended to enlighten the understanding, correct the temper, and form the manners and habits of youth, and fit them for usefulness in their future stations. To give children a good education in manners, arts and science, is important; to give them a religious education is indispensable; and an immense responsibility rests on parents and guardians who neglect these duties. (Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language 1828

This is why we become educated. We seek it to acquire manners, discipline, understanding of arts and science, temperance, and even, perhaps especially, the indispensable religious education provided by parents.

Several years ago, I was reading the preface of The Great Conversation, the first book of Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World by Robert M. Hutchins. I was captivated by his invitation.

…Education in the West has been steadily deteriorating; the rising generation has been deprived of its birthright; the mess of pottage it has received in exchange [for the great books] has not been nutritious; adults have come to lead lives comparatively rich in material comforts and very poor in moral, intellectual, and spiritual tone.

—Robert Maynard Hutchins, Great Books of the Western World, Volume I, The Great Conversation: The Substance of a Liberal Education

I realized that I was one of those richly educated by my mother in moral virtues, but greatly malnourished by modern education in the liberal arts. Hutchins was not being hubristic when he stated, with conviction, “We do not think these books will solve all our problems. We do not think they are the only books worth reading. We think that these books shed some light on all our basic problems, and that it is folly to do without any light we can get. We think that these books show the origins of many of our most serious difficulties. We think that the spirit they represent and the habit of mind they teach are more necessary today than ever before. We think that the reader who does his best to understand these books will find himself led to read and helped to understand other books. We think that reading and understanding great books will give him a standard by which to judge all other books.”

That is a bold statement. Is it true? There are two ways to know: observe it in the lives of others who are on the path, or take the invitation yourself.

The “Why”

Hutchins then goes on to the most profound of all reasons for embracing classical learning. 

“We believe that the reduction of the citizen to an object of propaganda, private and public, is one of the greatest dangers to democracy. A prevalent notion is that the great mass of the people cannot understand and cannot form an independent judgment upon any matter; they cannot be educated, in the sense of developing their intellectual powers, but they can be bamboozled. The reiteration of slogans, the distortion of the news, the great storm of propaganda that beats upon the citizen twenty-four hours a day all his life long mean either that democracy must fall prey to the loudest and most persistent propagandists or that the people must save themselves by strengthening their minds so they can appraise the issues for themselves.”

Think of the power that an educated mind can gift to you! This reward liberates you and your posterity for life!

“Great books….can help us to that grasp of history, politics, morals, and economics and to that habit of mind which are needed to form a valid judgment on the issue. Great books may even help us to know what information to demand. If we knew what information to demand we might have a better chance of getting it…..the idea that liberal education is the education that everybody ought to have, and that the best way to a liberal education in the West is through the greatest works the West has produced, is still, in our view, the best educational idea there is.”

Here is a generational idea that will feed you and others for a lifetime and beyond. Start reading a book from Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World or take the “Harvard Challenge” and read from those books. You could begin with the first book in either series, but I invite you to pick one that interests you and build on your education from there.

An Educational Feast

There are a few questions I love to ask everyone I meet: 

What is your passion? What are you reading? What are you learning? Who is your mentor?

Here is a second invitation from Dr. Charles W. Elliot who compiled The Harvard Classics also known as the Five-Foot Shelf of Books. “[These books] take you out of the rut of life in the town you live in and make you a citizen….. They offer you the companionship of the most interesting and influential men and women who have ever lived; they make it possible for you to travel without leaving home, and to have vacations without taking time from your work. They offer you-—if you will only accept their gifts—friends, travel the knowledge of life; they offer you education, the means of making your life what you want it to be.”

Thanks to Robert M. Hutchins and Charles W. Elliot for offering us a perpetual feast of a lifetime.

Come join in. The banquet is extraordinarily tasty, nutritious and delightful.  

Published by Dean Forman

I am co-founder and CEO of the John Adams Academies, an institution that is perhaps the most unique charter school system in America today. The Academies’ curriculum is designed to give its students an American Classical Leadership Education®. This is an education that pursues truth, beauty and goodness and turns its scholars outward in search of those whom they can serve in becoming servant leaders. This website is dedicated to sharing the concepts of an American Classical Leadership Education with its readers so that more citizens can benefit from the truth, virtue and wisdom of the past. The thoughts and opinions I share on this page are my personal views.

One thought on “Education—Where to Begin

  1. I love your blog, Dean! What great light and insight it gives me. I picked up on the “mess of pottage” analogy again – thanks for your inspired words. I love being able to “travel without leaving home” and “vacation without taking time off from work.” And the banquets feeding the mind and soul are priceless. I’ve always been a great learner through parables and analogies.

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