POCATELLO, ID – Near the end of the 19th Century, the then president of Harvard University, Charles Eliot, was challenged when he proposed that the elements of a liberal education could be obtained by spending 15 minutes a day reading from a collection of books that could fit on a five-foot shelf.
Hence the birth of the Harvard Classics published in 1909. I happen to possess one of the 1909 editions in plain green cloth covers. The set was removed from the Camas County High School library back in the 1970s for lack of use. A few of the titles, republished in paperback with colorful covers were read however, if their tattered appearance is a testament.
People do judge a book by its cover, and by its title, a fallacy I discovered on rainy days in high school when I took two ugly, navy, cloth covered books from my mother’s shelf dully titled Pride and Prejudice, and War and Peace. Despite covers and titles, I was fully entertained for several rainy days so much so that I never wanted the wonderful books to end.
Sadly, neither Jane Austen nor Leo Tolstoy are included in Eliot’s collection; there are no women at all on the five-foot shelf, although Eliot included Pride and Prejudice and Anna Karenina in a separate collection of fiction. What’s happened to the idea of a liberal education? Few so-called “educators” bring up the concept when discussing educational reform. Mostly they talk about job preparation “in our changing world.” “Liberal education” it seems is incorrectly suspected of specific political leanings in our silly political structure of liberals vs conservatives, when what it really means is to be liberally educated, meaning being exposed to varieties of history, literature, languages, philosophy, etc., – in other words, being exposed to lots of mind-blowing coupled with a desire to improve the mind with hopes of resembling in some fashion the brilliant and well-read minds of our founding fathers.
And indeed, the five-foot shelf begins with the autobiography of founding father Benjamin Franklin, philosopher, diplomat, printer, inventor, founder of public libraries.
So, on Charles Eliot’s advice, I will take 15 minutes of my morning and see what I can glean from this beloved master.
Franklin on Humility: “Imitate Jesus and Socrates”. I’d be interested to hear what others believe this to mean aside from my own interpretation which seems to simply mean practicing compassion and questioning authority. Both men were wanderers, milling about communities annoying people with questions and platitudes. Doesn’t every community have at least one thorn in its side? You can probably find yours by attending your next city council meeting.
Sometime in his quite long life, Franklin observed a widow taking over her husband’s printing business and how it thrived under her hand (which it hadn’t while run by her husband). Having managed a household and children, maintaining accounts came naturally to the widow.
Franklin says: “I mention this affair chiefly for the sake of recommending that branch of education for our young females, as likely to be of more use to them and their children in case of widowhood, than either music or dancing, by preserving them from losses by imposition of crafty men, and enabling them to continue, perhaps, a profitable mercantile house with establish’d correspondence, till a son is grown up fit to undertake and go on with it, to the lasting advantage and enriching of the family.”
This is about as “feminist” as Franklin gets, acknowledging that women have minds capable of learning and conducting profitable business, and that they are often held at a disadvantage by unscrupulous husbands/partners. Not bad for circa 1776, for one of the framers of our Constitution, a document which didn’t specifically take into account the freedoms and welfare of either women or people of color.
Have gender issues advanced adequately since Franklin’s death in 1790? Legal and cultural reforms are out and about whispering on the wind helped along by the brilliant 1960s analyses of Betty Friedan (The Feminine Mystique) and Gloria Steinem (Ms. Magazine), but when I serve the statistics for domestic violence and the economic status of female workers, both labor and professional, I fear 21st Century American culture has not yet completely caught up with its own courageous philosophy.
These are my thoughts on this chilly Sunday in 2015 in my private Pocatello.