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In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, Harvard president Charles W. Eliot gave a series of speeches. In those speeches, he mentioned that people could get a classical liberal education by reading certain books. known affectionately as the Harvard Five-Foot Shelf. Then he went a step further and mentioned you could get the same Harvard education by reading from that shelf of books 15 minutes a night.
Think about that for a minute. The president of Harvard was telling the audience that you really didn’t need to pay tuition for college. You could just read certain texts and get the same education. Not only that, you could be a cultivated individual, sitting at the pinnacle of Western Civilization, by reading from select books.
Naturally, people pestered Eliot for the book titles. Eventually he formulated the list and released the first 25 names in 1909. He released the second 25 titles the next year.
In what was the sign that this was a different America, the list sold like crazy. It was a favorite of the Book of the Month club for decades. To this day, you can find the Harvard Shelf for sale at numerous online sites. The prices seem fair. Perhaps a few hundred dollars, at most, for a towering mix of supernova-level literature.
Or, you can spend $79,450 per year and actually go to modern-day Harvard.
There is another angle to this. Back when Eliot talked about the Harvard Shelf, Harvard was at the apex of the liberal university world. A student at Harvard not only got a rigorous analysis of the world around him, but also studied the reasons why Western Civilization led the world.
You can see why such a treasure trove of knowledge would be popular.
Now, we have a Harvard that produces people who seem to think they should rule over the rest of us. A cursory glance of Harvard graduates in government will show you a list of people who have steered the American government off a cliff. They have also driven university campuses into a social justice, feelings-based wasteland. It didn’t take me long to find this class in the Harvard catalog: Latinx Representation in Media, Films, and Pop Culture.
How much are you willing to pay for Latinx Studies? The course might even be quite interesting. However, the question is: how much are you willing to pay for a class like that?
The Harvard Shelf exposes some of the most yawning gaps in schooling today, particularly at the University level.
One of the first books Eliot mentioned was Ben Franklin’s autobiography. The first half of this book is couched as a letter to his estranged son whom he hadn’t spoken to for many years. In the book, you get a case study on how Franklin, one of seventeen children of a candle maker, was able to navigate the complex labyrinth of pre-revolutionary America. In his journey, he became a historical figure, respected immensely from the United States to France. He was at the top of various secret societies, present at the beginning of the American government, President of Pennsylvania, and one of the architects of many of the founding principles of this country.
The reader will get the template necessary for figuring out many aspects of human nature, organizations, governments, and various semi-legal activities. You effectively get the manual for how to succeed in the street. This translates into success in other fields as well. The lessons are timeless.
How does the modern schooling edifice handle matters like Franklin’s book and the Harvard classics? When I went through “education school,” I was told the writings of “dead white men” were wildly overrepresented and therefore be removed from reading lists. This was reiterated to me when I began my career in the mid 1990’s. I was told, directly, that students related much better to books by people from the same heritage. I believed it at the time. I no longer do.
It’s difficult to think of a more destructive schooling fad. To deny young people the literary heft of the works on the Harvard Shelf is educational malpractice. The School Industrial Complex is a business run by liberals and progressives, and these fads have a destructive ripple effect on young minds, particularly the young minds who can least afford it.
One of the reasons why Book of the Month Club has been replaced by Twerk of the Month Video is because the value of a Western education has been not only forgotten, but ridiculed. Go into any urban high school. For every classical classroom, there are scores of teachers teaching grievances and feelings in the place of the lessons contained in the Harvard Shelf.
Our job is to use schooling and educational tools that are available at low to no cost and inculcate values that not only have been successful over time, but that you, the parent, hold.
Do everything you can to separate your children from people who scoff and dismiss things like the Harvard Five-Foot Shelf. When you see what they’ve replaced those titles with, you won’t be happy.