A Sea Change In My Reading

As you may remember, my latest project is “Reading The Presidents” — one biography of each of the first 40 US Presidents. I’m currently about a fifth of the way though the biography about our fifth President, James Monroe. This means that I’ve covered George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison.

In the four books I’ve completed so far, one commonality among all these men stands out:

They were smart.

I mean, really smart.

It got me thinking about education. There was no US Department of Education, no standardized testing, no teachers unions. There was no formal system that could reliably churn out educated students, much less people capable of the quality of thought that these men exhibited.

So how did these guys get so smart? We have two options (both of which might be true):

1. The United States was blessed by God through an assemblage of geniuses who were dedicated to setting up a nation.

Although I’m certainly open to that possibility, and I do think that a number of events in the nation’s history were arguably the product of divine influence, I think that the more practical answer is…

2. These men were classically trained to absorb, process, and generate great ideas.

When you consider that all of the great minds of the Enlightenment were classically trained in both the trivium (the first three liberal arts, consisting of grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy), you begin to think that we’ve lost something — either intentionally or not.

This left me frustrated with the anti-intellectualism so rampant in the world, the poor thinking, and the shallowness of my own education.

That left me at a crossroads. I decided that if I admired the minds of the Founding Fathers, I needed to cultivate my mind by reading what they read and thinking about what they thought about. Was I ready to do that? Was I willing to do that?

I decided that the answer to both question was, yes. Absolutely. But I’d need some help.

To that end, I signed up earlier this week with OnlineGreatBooks.com, and over the next year I’ll be reading and discussing the following authors with a group of like-minded people:

  • Homer
  • Aeschylus
  • Euripides
  • Sophocles
  • Aristophanes
  • Herodotus
  • Plato

Provided the first year goes well, I’ll move on to some other great books of Western Civilization, based on a list compiled by professor Mortimer J. Adler.

So where does this leave the Reading the Presidents project? It hasn’t gone anywhere, and I plan to continue reading them, although perhaps on a somewhat slower pace.