Notes: Dr. Bennett's Two-Foot Shelf (And Mine)

THE NATIONAL Endowment for the Humanities wants to know: “Are there important works in the humanities that every student in the United States might reasonably be expected to have studied before he or she graduates from high school?”

Dr. William J. Bennett, the chairman of the Endowment, posed this question last June in a letter to several hundred teachers, critics, politicians, and the like around the country. Bennett emphasized that he was not looking for “a list of favorite books or works, nor even for those that have most influenced your life, but for the bare universal minimum.”

There is something about being invited to propose a syllabus of this sort— whether for flesh-and-blood high school students or for the hypothetical shipwreck victim on a desert island—that tends to turn an ordinarily down-toearth person into a high-minded champion of the stodgiest classics. It is as if, upon being asked which foods all young Americans should eat regularly, one felt compelled to answer: liver, wheat germ, and carrot juice.

Surprisingly, however, the replies to Dr. Bennett’s query proved to be quite palatable. To be sure, some of the respondents indulged a Whiggish fancy or two. (George F. Will, for example, writing in The Washington Post, promoted Cardinal Newman’s The Idea of a University as required reading for the nation’s 14 million high school students, though he did so rather sheepishly.) But when the responses were finally tabulated by officials at the Endowment, the ten most frequent recommendations, in order, turned out to be: something by Shakespeare (Macbeth or Hamlet), “primary documents” (the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and the Federalist papers), Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, portions of the Bible (Genesis, Ecclesiastes, Psalms, and one of the Gospels), and one book each by Homer (The Iliad or The Odyssey), Dickens (Great Expectations or A Tale of Two Cities), Plato (The Republic or the death of Socrates in The Phaedo), Steinbeck (The Grapes of Wrath), Hawthorne (The Scarlet Letter), and Sophocles Oedipus Rex).

For the most part that strikes me as both a reasonable and a respectable twofoot shelf of books. But is it sufficient? Will this “bare universal minimum” truly enable the typical teenager to hit the ground running on graduation day? Conducting a nonsystematic survey of my own over a period of weeks, I asked some friends the following question: “For an average American kid to make his way in the U.S.A.—to negotiate the school system, to survive physically and function socially thereafter, and to cope with an excess of leisure time—are there any books not on Dr. Bennett’s list that he ought to have under his belt?”

One woman I know suggested TV Movies, edited by Leonard Maltin. As a satisfied owner of the 1983-1984 revised edition, which consists of capsule reviews of some 15,000 feature films shown on television, I readily endorse this nomination. The average American watches about 1,600 hours of television every year. At midnight on any day of the week 2.65 million teenagers are still sitting in front of the tube. What happens at, say, one o’clock in the morning, when the local TV listing reports only: “(5) The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (1963), Joseph Green, Herb Evers, Virginia Leith, Adele Lamont”? Does one watch or go to bed? Consider the assessment provided by TV Movies: “Poorly produced tale of surgeon trying to find body to attach to fiancee’s head (she was decapitated but still lives).” The typical viewer is now equipped to make a decision. The set stays on.

What about The Official Boy Scout Handbook? Two people, unknown to each other, independently suggested this essential compendium. One of them said, “The section I remember best was called ‘From Boy to Man,’ which told you what was going on when you found hair growing in your armpits. It was on page 89 or 113 or something like that.” In the ninth edition, written by William (“Green Bar Bill”) Hillcourt, “From Boy to Man” is still included. So is useful advice on such matters as what to bring along on an overnight hike (don’t forget a “small U.S. flag, with halyard”) and how to gauge the temperature of burning coals using only the palm of your hand. A list of commonly invoked human virtues appears on page 31, for handy reference, and memorable moral maxims are scattered throughout the book. For example, according to Green Bar Bill, “You never have to worry about dirt that washes off.”

My wife came up with three suggestions, whose merits are self-evident: The Rand McNally Road Atlas, the Cliffs Notes for Charles Dickens, and Stephen Potter’s The Complete Upmanship. Any American who finds the Road Atlas hard to handle has, to put it mildly, been pushed from the nest with his wings clipped; familiarity with this cartographic folio should be a prerequisite for obtaining a driver’s license. As for Dickens (number six on Dr. Bennett’s list), I have never really understood why this man’s novels should have come to dominate the American high school curriculum. Rare is the student who begs for “more” of Dickens, and equally rare the teacher who, like Mr. Bumble, withholds a second serving. Cliffs Notes should satisfy the needs of all concerned. While the publishers of the series caution that “these notes are not a substitute for the text itself,” they may usefully tide one over until retirement.

The Complete Upmanship, meanwhile, is the antidote of choice to the occasional plonking squareness of The Official Hoy Scout Handbook. “The most important thing I learned from Stephen Potter,” my wife explained, “is that when you’re a houseguest, you should make a point of helping with the dishes on the day of your arrival. Everyone else will notice, and you won’t be asked to do another thing.”Potter offers training in such basic “Lifegambits” as “Mannership,” “Clothesmanship,” and “I’m Rather Delightfulship.” Those who are daunted by Dr. Bennett’s two-foot shelf might profitably repair to Potter’s postgraduate course in “Litmanship”: “How to make it appear, without giving books more than a casual glance, for surely there is not time, that no man is quicker than yourself off the mark with the latest thriller, newest white paper on the development of opencast tungsten mining, or most recent reminiscences of some unheard-of nephew of Dante Gabriel Rossetti.”

Litmanship, however, will not do for the final five selections proposed by my respondents. The Joy of Cooking, by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker: one must, after all, come to terms with this craft, and if one has not done so by the age of eighteen, one probably never will. Besides, the authors’ crisp mini-essays (“About Calories,” “About Terrapin”) rival those of Montaigne. Casino Royale and its sequels, by Ian Fleming: a friend of mine says that the James Bond saga “teaches poise, cool, and the importance of a certain kind of individualism; also, it contains a lot of good ideas about where to go on vacation.” The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, by Agatha Christie: according to Robin Winks, a professor of history at Yale, one’s reaction to this book can serve as a litmus test. Those satisfied by Miss Christie’s conclusion are destined to become voracious consumers of detective novels; those who believe that Miss Christie was cheating had best cultivate other forms of recreation. For them Hoyle’s Games, by Edmond Hoyle, will prove especially valuable.

A quarter of an inch remains on my two-foot shelf—just room enough for Goodnight Moon, with text by Margaret Wise Brown and pictures by Clement Hurd. This book was recommended (implicitly) by my son. He has been through Goodnight Moon from cover to cover 417 times, on each occasion playing “find the mouse,” though not according to Hoyle. I hope that, a generation from now, he will discover the book again, the way I did.

—Cullen Murphy