In 1987, American philosopher and educator Allan Bloom (1930-1992) published The Closing of the American Mind and argued that universities were failing students by devaluing the great books of Western literature (known as the “Western canon”) as the source of wisdom and springboards for deep reflection, analysis, and discussion. Rather than producing students who were independent, critical thinkers interested in pursuing the truth, Bloom believed that universities were guiding students to a mundane, “sterile” life more concerned with the accumulation of wealth and possessions. In short, Bloom ardently embraced Socrates’ famous dictum: “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
In addition to encouraging reflection and discussion, one of the most important legacies of the Western canon is cultural literacy. As educator Eric Hirsch states in his introduction to The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, “Although it is true that no two humans know exactly the same things, they often have great deal of knowledge in common… [a] collective memory [that] allows people to communicate, to work together, and to live together.” Without cultural literacy, we have intolerance and ignorance. Recall that comical moment in the Sopranos, when Tony attempts to discuss The Art of War by Sun Tzu: “Most of the guys I know read Prince Matchabelli… he’s OK. But this book is much better about strategy.” (S3, E8). [Prince Matchabelli was a perfume line, featuring distinctive crown-shaped bottles, that was popular in the 1960s.]
Fast forward 30 years and not much has changed. Educators have been lamenting the notable absence of great authors in the curricula of colleges — and high schools — in the name of political correctness, outright censorship, and contemporary populism. Sadly, the budgets of many arts and humanities programs have been dramatically reduced all across the country. And given the soaring cost of higher education, students have abandoned majoring in the humanities in favor of the sciences to increase their odds of landing secure and higher-paying jobs.
Let’s return to Bloom’s championing of the great books of literature. Bloom would agree that if we can judge a culture by the books it reads, we should be able to judge a college’s curriculum by the very same standard. Step onto any college campus and visit its bookstore to see what books are being taught — this provides a reliable gauge about the depth and breadth of intellectual investigation and discourse.
To assess the entire country’s exploration of intellectual history, it would take a very long time to visit every college bookstore. Welcome to the Open Syllabus Project (OSP). The OSP has created a massive database containing over 1 million syllabi from U.S. universities over the past 15 years. Recently, the OSP published a list of the books that students at many well-known U.S. universities and colleges are required to read by mining that database. If Bloom were alive today, he would find some consolation in learning that the list contains many of the great works of literature. As new generations study these timeless classics, they continue the critical examination of life and the eternal quest for truth — something that would make Bloom and Socrates feel gratified.
1. The Elements of Style by William Strunk
2. Republic by Plato
3. The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx
4. Biology by Neil Campbell
5. Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
6. Ethics by Aristotle
7. Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes
8. The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli
9. Oedipus by Sophocles
10. Hamlet by William Shakespeare
11. The Odyssey by Homer
12. Orientalism by Edward Said
13. A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations by Kate Turabian
14. The Iliad by Homer
15. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
16. Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
17. Antigone by Sophocles
18. Letter From the Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King, Jr.
19. On Liberty by John Stuart Mill
20. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn
21. Paradise Lost by John Milton
22. Utilitarianism by John Stuart Mill
23. The Clash of Civilizations by Samuel Huntington
24. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
25. Apology by Plato
For further reading: http://opensyllabusproject.org