by Conor Friedersdorf
Alan Jacobs is pondering the appropriate high school curriculum for his son:
He’s headed into the eleventh grade, and while his education so far has given him a sound overview of Western cultural history, we’re concerned that he hasn’t had enough experience digging deeply into particular issues, doing wide-ranging research and coming up with sophisticated theses based on what he has learned. So we’ve decided to organize the coming school year around particular topics with interdisciplinary facets to them, starting in each case with one or two books that will in different ways orient him to the issues. Our focus will be on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the West, though any non-Western topics could reach back farther.
So, for instance, one topic will start with Voltaire’s Candide and, probably, Nicholas Shrady’s book on the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755, The Last Day, and will involve philosophical optimism, the “problem of evil” for Christians and other religious believers, and associated topics. Another unit will involve sanitation and social class in Victorian England. Wes will start by reading Dickens’s Bleak House and Stephen Johnson’s The Ghost Map, and will expand his research from there.
On this side of the Atlantic, we might have Wes read Ellis’s Founding Brothers and Garry Wills’s Cincinnatus he has already read the Federalist Papers, so it would be interesting to have that in the background.
The post goes on like that. At the end, Alan asks for feedback and advice from readers, and the comments section includes some wonderful suggestions. The whole exchange makes me jealous of young Wes, and the education he is receiving. It is so obviously superior to my own academic experience in ninth through twelfth grade.
I say that as someone who attended a well-regarded Catholic high school that offered numerous AP classes, better than average teachers and a reputation among elite colleges for turning out exceptionally well prepared students. Even so, I cannot help but assess its curriculum with a Paul Simon line: "When I look back on all the crap I learned in high school, it's a wonder I can think at all." Despite hard work that resulted in a 4.0+ GPA, I spent four years studying Spanish without becoming anything near fluent, passed an AP Physics class knowing embarrassingly little about the subject, and endured a biology class that basically amounted to memorizing terms long enough to pass successive unit exams (and no longer), conceptual understanding be damned. The only classes that afforded real learning were senior year English, modern art, geometry, and an ethics course, classes I remain grateful for having taken -- they've afforded more intellectual fulfillment in subsequent years than anything in my upbringing save the fact that my parents read to me endlessly as a little kid.