This year we published our K-12 book list, which for me turned out to be one of the most delightful and also important projects of the year. It was delightful as someone who loves books and history to rummage around old books and to think creatively about how we could envision a K-12 list. It was important because the book list is arguably the most foundational element of a curriculum. In a very literal sense, students become what they read. We learn to write by imitating an author’s writing style, and books present us with both good and distorted ways of living a life – calling us to examine our own way of living. Book lists are important. In my experience you can learn a lot about a school by simply asking, “what books do you read here?”
I have presented our list to parents, and I hear again and again the same response, “This is everything we should have read in high school, but didn’t!” I’ve heard this response so often that I began to look into it: why didn’t we all read these great books in high school?
The answer involves at least two things.
First, required book lists have become so politicized and controversial that educators have abandoned the project of an ideal and prescribed list. Committees of reading specialists have been formed for this purpose, but fighting quickly ensues. The book list is never diverse enough, historically accurate enough, sufficiently balanced between “old” and “new,” and so on. As this argument rages on at the top, at the local and classroom-level students suffer with inadequate and often objectively bad reading lists.
Did our list perfectly address all of the issues? Probably not; but at least we have a list. Thankfully, in the classical Christian movement we are not alone in developing a prescribed book list, and so we had resources to guide us. Specifically, for our 7-12th grade reading list, we drew on sources like the Torrey Honors College reading list as well as the list of Great Texts at Baylor University’s Honors College.
Second, required reading lists have fallen out of favor as educators have embraced a student-centered over a more curriculum-centered philosophy. In other words, there is a philosophical preference toward encouraging students to read what they find inspiring or interesting as opposed to the teacher inspiring the love for particular books in them. A student-centered reading list might sound appealing at first. But as every parent knows from real experience, children do not always know or desire what is good for them. Very often, children like all of us must be formed (sometimes even against our natural desires) in the true, the good, and the beautiful. The same is true for a book list. Rather than student’s selecting their own list, we desire to form students in what we know to be best for them: the reading of the most enduring and influential works in human history.
The publication of our reading list took work; and I’m grateful for the many hours of reading and discussion that went into it. It is worth the effort to know that with this list our graduates will never look back on their education and ask, “Why didn’t I read these books in high school?”