Self Improvement & The 5 Foot Shelf

Harvard Classics Complete Set 51 Volumes First Edition (The Five Foot Shelf Of Books)I am going to take a break from my ongoing series on George Washington on Leadership in the Workplace to share something that I just recently came across. Now this may not be new to you- after all my quest to live and learn about the classical virtues is still in its infancy. However, even if you have heard of Dr. Eliot’s Five Foot Shelf, reacquainting yourself with this valuable resource and cultural experiment can be useful.

First a little history. Charles W. Elliot was the president of Harvard from 1869 to 1909. This is an important era in American education as this comes during the transition from old-style classicism to John Dewey inspired progressivism. Dr. Elliot represented a sensible middle ground. Old-style classicism had become in many ways a caricature of its former glory, more concerned with an archaic curriculum than the foundational ideas behind it. On the other hand many of Dewey’s followers created schools that were so child-centered that they ignored the importance of the content as well as the role of the teacher in a student’s education.

The Five Foot Shelf
Dr. Elliot has gone down in history as one of education’s great reformers, and rightly so, but he also had a deep love of the classics. Here is where the Five Foot Shelf comes in. He was known for claiming that if you spent just 15 minutes a day reading the right books, an amount that could fit comfortably on a five foot shelf, you could give yourself a good liberal education. 

P. F. Collier and Son saw a marketing opportunity and challenged Dr. Elliot to create his list and they would publish it. Thus was born The Harvard Classics. This is an amazing set if you, like me, are interested in a more classical approach to education. As much as Elliot tried to break from the past, he could not escape the fact that to become a truly educated person you must read the best writing. Today’s schools, in an attempt at inclusiveness, often include sub par works. This resource allows you to fill in the gaps of your education as it were.

It Costs How Much?!
Now for the bad news. The set is currently prices $400 at Amazon. Now don’t get me wrong, I’d love if you clicked this affiliate link to Amazon and purchased a set. I would happily pocket the commission safe in the knowledge that I recommended a solid educational resource. However, there is a much better and cheaper way to get a hold of this classic series.

The Internet Archive is a non-profit that was founded to build an Internet library. One of its products is The Harvard Classics.

The most comprehensive and well-researched anthology of all time comprises both the 50-volume “5-foot shelf of books” and the the 20-volume Shelf of Fiction. Together they cover every major literary figure, philosopher, religion, folklore and historical subject through the twentieth century.n 1910, Dr. Charles W. Eliot, then President of Harvard University, put together an extraordinary library of “all the books needed for a real education.”

Adding This to My Bucket List
I for one am going to take up Dr. Eliot’s challenge, albeit 100 years late, and read for 15 minutes a day, going through this series. Admittedly this is a lifetime pursuit, but it is only 15 minutes a day. Surely anyone can spare that. And with the collection absolutely free there just isn’t a good reason not to attempt this goal. Does anyone want to join me? Stop by Twitter or comment below.

What This Blog Is Not

A plethora of sites inhabit the blogoshpere that purport to teach you how to make the most of your life. They use terms like risk-taking, unconventional life and doing the impossible to motivate you to do more and live better. To steal a quote made famous by the US Army, they try to enable you to “be all you can be.”
Development For Development’s Sake
Just Google the term lifestyle design or personal development and you’ll be inundated with information about how to become a better human. You’ll learn how to travel the world, live minimally, be location independent, raise an army to your cause and many other such things.
Before I go any further I want to make clear that I have no problem with these sites as far as they go. If they serve to motivate people to realize there is more to life than Netflix and iTunes then that is great. These sites act as giant pep rallies, and rallies have a purpose in life, a good purpose. They get us to move, break us out from our self-imposed lethargy. But rallies generally do not answer the questions, Why? and How?
I can readily find information online about how to run my first marathon, do 100 consecutive push ups or travel around the world with little more than a back pack. But aside from a feeling of personal satisfaction, or greater global awareness, I still do not really know why I should do these things or how they make me intrinsically better than I was before I accomplished them.
What This Blog Is
This has been a long-winded way of saying A Certain Quality of Life will not be one of these sites. I will hopefully inspire people to make more of their lives; that is of course why I am chronicling my own journey here. But more importantly, I think, is that I will be attempting to discover and share why living a fuller life is important to our being human and how living a certain way can help us attain that life. I admit I do not have the answers yet, but I hope a few of you will stick around for the conversation.
By focusing on the classical virtues as the glue holding this site together I hope to draw on the learning and experience of people much wiser than I am. The world has changed so much, and so fast, over the past 100 years, hell, over the past 20! It is easy for us to feel like we need to find the answers to life’s biggest questions on our own. But we don’t. People have been struggling with how to define what a good life looks like, what happiness is, for literally millennia.
People like Aristotle, Plato, Marcus Aurelius, Thoma Aquinas.
Books like The Bible, Summa Theologica, and The Art of Living.
These sources can give us insight into how people, who dedicated entire lifetimes to study, attempted to answer some of life’s most perplexing questions. Through a study of those who have gone before us I hope to get closer to an answer to the Why and How.

The Value of a College Education

A classical education is defined as one that focuses on the seven liberal arts. According to Andrew Kern over at The Circe Institute, “[c]lassical education is the only hope for democracy. It is the only form of education that can make people fit to rule themselves.” While I tend to agree with Mr. Kern, I do think reasonable people can debate whether a classical education is the sole purveyor of self rule. However, according to recent reports our currrent college system may be missing the mark.

A recent New Yorker article by Louis Menand looked at both the purpose of college and the results presented in a new book, Academically Adrift, by, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, whose premise is that American colleges are more about a social experience than learning. I know the gut reaction to the latter is probably a, “Yes, of course. we didn’t need a study to tell us that!” But let’s not get ahead of ourselves just quite yet.
First, Menand states two possible purposes for college. One, it is essentially a sorting hat for the world of work. An IQ test is not reliable, but if someone makes it through 4 years of college with an acceptable G.P.A. then a potential employer can assume a certain level of proficiency. The second purpose, in his own words, is to

  …expose[s] future citizens to material that enlightens and empowers them, whatever careers they end up choosing. In performing this function, college also socializes. It takes people with disparate backgrounds and beliefs and brings them into line with mainstream norms of reason and taste.

He then goes on to state that one of the problems with our modern college system is that it attempts to do both. As a classicist I support theory number two fairly strongly, though I have to admit to the efficacy of some type of sorting for the purpose of creating a productive society. But can a system that has as a main aim a vocational education truly create a citizenry of creative and independent thinkers? Here is where Arum and Roska come into play.

The book has an ample appendix and is full of research and data- it is not one of those red-meat diatribes against education. There are of course plenty of surveys included that talk about how much less studying goes on now a days, and how more and more college students spend their time on social and entertainment activities. To a certain extent I disregard these. The older generation always feels the younger just isn’t up to snuff in one way or another.
But one piece of interesting data that they focus on quite a bit is a test known as the Collegiate Learning Assessment, or C.L.A., which they gave to incoming freshman, sophomores and seniors to judge how much they were improving. The results were less than flattering.
Arum and Roksa say that 45% of the students showed little if any improvement. On the face of it this seems bad. However, you need to dig a bit beneath the surface to find the ray of hope. Menand finds this ray,

The most interesting finding is that students majoring in liberal-arts fields—sciences, social sciences, and arts and humanities—do better on the C.L.A., and show greater improvement, than students majoring in non-liberal-arts fields such as business, education and social work, communications, engineering and computer science, and health. There are a number of explanations. Liberal-arts students are more likely to take courses with substantial amounts of reading and writing; they are more likely to attend selective colleges, and institutional selectivity correlates positively with learning; and they are better prepared academically for college, which makes them more likely to improve. The students who score the lowest and improve the least are the business majors.

We are coming full circle back to the idea that a classical education is the one that best prepares one for life in a democracy. Those students studying the liberal arts, the foundation of any classical system, perform best. Unfortunately liberal arts students make up less than 20% of the population of college students. The far and away leader? Business degree. want to guess who score the lowest?
The point seems to be that while we need vocational training in a society that needs more and more specialized skills in the productive world, we also need a classical or liberal foundation to be more than just a cog in that world. How do we succeed at both?

The Importance of Self-Control

I am a teacher. I understand the value of learning the “3 R’s”. I believe all sorts of schooling scenarios can work: public school, private school, home school or even guided independent study. A lot depends on the teacher and the type of student(s) involved.  However, I also know that there are things even more important than the basics of reading, writing and computational skills.

Character counts.

And character is not as easy to quantify, teach or assess. Many schools institute a type of values education, but this is often just an add-on to an already over-crowded curriculum. The teachers resent having one more topic to cover and the kids sense their ambivalence. Not a recipe for success, which is why these programs never seem to go the distance. They pop up only to disappear once the teacher or administrator who spearheaded the program moves on to something else. At the same time we are learning more and more about just how important character is in determining the quality of your life.

Your character can be defined as how well you abide by the four classical virtues, one of which, Temperance has been in the news lately. Back in the early 1970‘s Stanford did a study to see if four-year-old kids had an innate sense of temperance, or self-control. They put a child alone in a room with a marshmallow. They were free to eat it, but if they could resist for a set amount of time they would receive two marshmallows.  Turns out, some kids were better at this than others. The finding were an interesting curiosity at the time, but decades later the follow up data has made news once again.

Scientist Terrie Moffitt and her colleagues found that self-control has a pervasive and powerful effect on the arc of a life.

Even adjusting for IQ and economic background, children who were more adept at self-control went on to lead better lives. They were healthier, less likely to abuse drugs, more likely to save, less likely to be convicted of a crime, and the list goes on. These “good choices’’ not only benefit the individuals who make them, but their friends, family — even taxpayers.

What makes Moffitt’s discovery of such great public consequence is another surprise. Self-control is like a muscle. It is not just something that one is born with, but something that can be strengthened through regular exercise. Equally important, everyone can benefit. Moffitt found that, no matter the starting point, any improvement in self-control meant brighter prospects, and steps down portended trouble.

While it is always nice to have scientific back-up, the fact that virtue takes practice is hardly new. Over 2,000 years ago Aristotle said that excellence, or virtue of character was a habit more than anything else. We need to constantly exercise our self-control over small things if we ever expect it to “work” when the big temptations of life come along. Many religions instinctively realize this, hence the self-limiting disciplines- no meat on Fridays or set times for prayer. It is not that these specific practices need to have a dogmatic relevance; it is that they help train your self-control muscles as it were.

This is where the tricky part comes in to play. We currently live in a culture that values instant gratification. Self-control is almost looked at as a vice, rather than a virtue in many cases. How many parents give their children everything they could want, and do so out of sincere love, only to be stripping them of the opportunity to train the temperance muscle.

The same goes for adults, myself included. One of the unforeseen benefits of the hard economic times we are currently facing in much of the western world is the drying up of readily available credit. Most of us can not simply whip out the plastic and make spontaneous purchases anymore. But this is a good thing. Part of being human is dealing with lack. It is unnatural to live in a perpetual state of plenty. Just watch one of those lottery-ruined-my-life shows to see how having everything soon leads to nothing.

Self-control, Temperance, a classical virtue that is being thrust, unwelcome, upon many of us could be just the training we need in a 21st century world. Which brings us back to schools. How do we incorporate true character education? Again, they best society has come up with is often based in or around religion, therefore religious schools have the best track record here. Is there a way to bring this to a secular public school setting?  This is a topic I will be exploring in the future and I welcome any thoughts below in the comment section.

Living & Finding Meaning in Work

How to Live on 24 Hours a DayOne thing I really enjoy is the reading of older self help books. By older I mean ones written between 1850 and 1920. The advice they give is often more clearly grounded in tangible acts of virtue than much of the modern,feel-good platitudinous works. The best resource for these treasures is Google Books. My latest find: How to Live on 24 Hours a Day (1910), written by Arnold Bennett. 

It is part of a more complete book called How to Live. Bennett offers everyday advice on how we can live and not just exist within the limits of a 24 hours day. He is writing at the turn of the century and for an English audience, but the message is surprisingly relevant.
Much of the populace was moving towards working in an urban jungle of cubicles and offices and they were leaving behind much of what he argues made them “men.” People worked to make money, but their day-to-day lives consisted of waking up, going to work, going home, relaxing, going to sleep, and repeating the whole thing the next day. 
Which of us lives on twenty-four hours a day? And when I say “lives,” I do not mean exists, nor “muddles through.” Which of us is free from that uneasy feeling that the “great spending departments” of his daily life are not managed as they ought to be? 
Basically, he didn’t believe they were really living. And to a large extent, not much has changed in the ensuing 100 years.
I would argue that meaning can be found in work. That is actually a prevailing theme of this site, but I would not disagree that many of us toil away in jobs that currently have little intrinsic meaning to us. Bennett says the solution is to use our leisure time for self improvement: reading, studying and other  classical pursuits. These are of course all valid and useful endeavors. But this doesn’t really solve the problem of not enjoying our daily work. 
To lead truly full lives we need to both use our leisure time well and find something meaningful in our actual jobs.

Plato and Our Current Culture

Plato: RepublicWe like in a culture that feeds on itself. We build people and organizations up simply to tear them back down. Little attention do we devote to our own moral development. without each doing his part the whole of society can not improve. Does this sound like the current state of affairs in the modern western world?

The state being a perfect one must exhibit in itself the four cardinal virtues. Not that every one of its citizens must exhibit them perfectly, but the philosophical rulers present prudence, courageous standing-army courage, the well-conducted populace and craftsman temperance. The remaining virtue justice, the virtue of the whole, the principle and cause of the existence of the other three, compelling each portion of the state to keep it own business, and to abstain from all interference with the affairs of the other portions.- Plato’s Republic, Book 4

The question is: how do we get there from here? As the U.S. moves into yet another divisive election season we could benefit from some attention to a basic civic virtue.

Flannery O’Connor and Modern Education

A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories
Flannery O’Connor was an American novelist, short-story writer and essayist, who wrote two novels and many short stories, as well as a number of reviews and essays. O’Connor’s writing  usually reflected her Roman Catholic faith, and frequently examined questions of morality and ethics. (As an aside, one of my personal favorites of her is A Good Man is Hard to Find.)

One of her many essays dealt with what was then the modern high school education. The quote that I came across that motivated this post is:

The proper business of the high school is “preparing foundations”; it is ABSOLUTELY NOT immersing young people in the already-too-familiar aesthetic tastes and moral realities of modernity; it is certainly not amusing them with exciting stories of sex and violence. And if the student finds that this is not to his taste? Well, that is regrettable. His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed.”

 If she is right, then the last few generations have been formed without a foundation at all. There is a whole genre of literature now dealing with young adult fiction that caters to their tastes. While some of it I would argue has the ability to elevate, such as the Harry Potter series, much of it is largely soap opera drivel, such as the Twilight series.

While part of me agrees with her point, I also wonder how many more young adults readers there are now than in the 1960’s when O’Connor wrote her essay. I think there is something to be said for developing a habit of reading, even if that habit is fed with low quality/high entertainment value literature at first. Eventually taste will improve, and if the student is of a humanities bent then higher education will point him to better forms of literature.

That said, at some point a firm foundation in the classics is truly invaluable. But I do wonder if it is harder to go backwards if your tastes have been formed on a diet of modern, largely empty fiction. Can you tell I am conflicted?

The Founding Fathers, Classical Education & a New Hope

Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and LatinAmericans view the Founding Fathers in vacuo, isolated from the soil that nurtured them,” says Traci Lee Simmons in his book, Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin.

It is certainly true that little thought is given by the everyday American as to what the foundation of our own founders was.
This is to our own detriment, for if we paid attention to this we would see a way forward for education in America. So, how were the founders educated?  Through a Classical education. Simmons elaborates,

“These men, had read and digested Polybius, Aristotle, and Cicero, and they used the ancient luminaries to frame and illustrate their ideas before the assembly…These heated yet erudite debates, along with the Federalist Papers, fairly pullulate both with subtle classical allusions—with which Madison, Hamilton, and Jay assumed readers to be tolerably familiar—and direct references to the leagues—Amphictyonic, Achaean, Aetolian, Lycian—formed by the ancient Greeks in order to achieve political and physical security.”

Why is this important? Because it is through the prism of this classical background that they were able to see the way to a future that we enjoy today. Do we have the same faith in our current political leaders? Recent polls and common sense says no. The lack of depth in modern political discourse, which I have written about in the recent past, has its roots in a lack of serious thought in education.
However, there is hope out there. And ironically the seed of the future may indeed be in Washington, D.C. But it has nothing to do with The U.S. Congress. Instead it is a small Catholic school, the St. Jerome Classical School in Hyattsville, a suburb of D.C. Last spring, St. Jerome’s began transforming itself into an experiment for one of the more promising trends in education. It is one of a handful of Catholic schools in the country reinventing itself  as a classical academy . The Washington Post  recently ran had a great story on the school where they define the classical curriculum as:
Classical theory divides childhood development into three stages known as the trivium: grammar, logic and rhetoric. During the “grammar” years (kindergarten through fourth grade), children soak up knowledge. They memorize, absorb facts, learn the rules of phonics and spelling, recite poetry, and study plants, animals, basic math and other topics. Moral lessons are included. 

 I, for one, wish them well and hope the experiment works. Until we have a generation of citizens capable of the critical thought that the 21st century will require we will be stuck with the back and forth political ping pong that we have been subjected to over the previous century. Coincidentally, this is exactly the same time period during with Dewey’s practical philosophy of Progressivism dethroned classical education from our schools. On second thought, maybe it is not such a coincidence after all.

David Hume at 300

Selected Essays (Oxford World's Classics)I first read David Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding while in college and while I enjoyed it at the time I have to admit that like much of my college reading it fell from my memory. That is until I read The Authentic Adam Smith, where Hume was an influential minor character, and I heard that this weekend was to be the 300th anniversary of Hume’s birth.

Born May 7, 1711 Hume was a Scottish philosopher, historian, economist, and essayist, known as an empiricist and a skeptic. He is often considered one of the most important thinkers in the history of Western philosophy. His short work, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, deals with the weakness that we have in our abilities to understand the world around us, what is referred to in the title as human understanding.
Above all Hume believed we lived through our emotions and passions, not necessarily through reason. In fact he theorized reason could only act as an arbiter of passion. “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” In this view he moved away from the Aristotlean ideal that had made up much of the philosophy of antiquity, the middle ages and the Renaissance. 
Whereas classicists such as Plato believed that ideas had a life of their own independent from the observer, Hume thought just the opposite. “Beauty is no quality in things themselves: it exists merely in the mind which contemplates them.”

As I mentioned above he was very influential on Adam Smith and the two of them became the foundation for a unique Scottish enlightenment movement that still influences philosophical thought to this day. His views however, were not always welcomed by the establishment, either academic, religious of political. his inate skepticism made him target many long held beliefs. “I have written on all sorts of subjects . . . yet I have no enemies; except indeed all the Whigs, all the Tories, and all the Christians.”

In the end, while his views can be debated and argued against, what can not be denied is the influence he had on modern thought, and on this his 300 anniversary it seems appropriate to at least acknowledge that impact.


New Scholarship

The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie…well, not dummies, but the uninitiated anyway. Scholarship that is digestible to the common man is a prerequisite for a modern virtuous society. The pursuit of happiness is really the pursuit of Wisdom. Wisdom prompts virtuous action, which in turn leads to a virtuous society. So how do we make scholarship available? We start by encouraging scholars to stop obfuscating Truth and start building straight bridges towards it.
Timothy Burke, a polymath professor at Swarthmore, writes about Wendy McClure’s new book, The Wilder Life:

The book is offering no strikingly new findings about the Ingalls or their place in history. As McClure points out, it’s not even the first book to offer a travelogue of journeys to important Ingalls-related tourist sites. But it is a smart, personal engagement with the big questions that the Little House books pose: why were they written and published? (By whom, in fact?) Why do we like them? (Which ‘we’?) What have they done to and with national, religious, cultural and gender identity in the United States over the last forty-odd years?

 We need more writing like this.