18 May 2012

The Education of a Civilized Mind

A particular friend and I share a passion for the topic of education, literature, and culture. Whenever we get together we argue good naturedly about what should be changed, what must not be tampered with, what has been lost, what must be rescued and preserved before it is too late, indeed what it even means to be "educated".

Part of any education—and certainly part of mine—has to do not only with books but also with films, music, documentaries and art. Cultural experiences that, when taken in at the eye, heart and ear, open the world to us in ways that make a deep impression on the psyche and refine the edges of the human spirit.  It's to be expected, perhaps, that as time passes, certain archaic cultural touchstones erode and slip away, slowly but inexorably. I'm sure there are sayings and cultural knowledge shared amongst my great-grandparents and their contemporaries that are no longer part of the popular mindset and would be unrecognizable to me.  And no doubt by the time this current century turns, much of what is familiar to us culturally, many times by osmosis, may be forgotten, usurped by different touchstones, sayings, knowledge and experiences. That is, after all, one of the meanings of the word PAST.... a word that has something of missing or vanished in it, even as we speak it.

 Who knows if anyone will have seen "Gone With the Wind", "The Wizard of Oz" or "To Kill A Mockingbird" a century from now; or if mankind will still pepper conversations with quotable Shakespeare ("to thine own self be true", "such stuff as dreams are made of", "we have seen better days") or the Biblical references we take for granted ("having the patience of Job").  [Does anyone under the age of 30 know that the titles of Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath and Lillian Helman's play The Little Foxes are from Bible texts?]

If young people are meant to perpetuate at least a fraction of what we have come to know as our cultural history—and one could argue that perhaps they are not meant to—then it is imperative to expose them to the books, films, music and art that we deem representative of man's and woman's struggle and pleasure on this earth, to ensure that these things do not forever vanish, fading into the oblivion that occurs when the last person who remembers has passed on. 

One of the exercises my friend and I devised was a sort of check list, enumerating what we felt must be known by anyone under the age of 30 if they are to forge onward into middle life with any sort of grasp on our cultural past.  Here are some of the questions we posed to one another:
  • What 20 books (including complete works or anthologies) should be required of every young person?
  • What 10 films (from any era) should they see?
  • What 7 television programs (again from any era and including documentaries, series, cartoons, etc.) should they be familiar with?
  • What 5 plays should they be required to see?  (In person, watching dust motes fly off the stage floor.... not on film!)
  • What 3 operas, operettas or musical theatre pieces should they see or at the very least hear?
  • Which 5 pieces of art should they try to see in person if possible?

Something to think about. 

And with that, I bid you adieu. Parting, after all, is such sweet... well, you know.


  1. Hi there! I remember that I read this post soon after you poated it. Too big of an assignment for me (although a worthy one).

  2. The problem with my lists is that they keep changing! But I think that's a good thing....