You can’t read every book. You can’t retain everything you read. Given these facts what counts as being well-read? It’s an interesting question to consider in a world where more and more books are being published every year thus making the goal of keeping up with knowledge nearly impossible. Even if you choose to specialize in one discipline, being well-read in that discipline is extremely difficult. But, is there a way to attain a level of general knowledge that is both achievable and useful? And, what are the benefits of such knowledge?
In an effort to plan a homeschooling curriculum for my daughter I have been thinking quite a lot about such questions. While I have a lot of sympathy for the unschooling movement and interest-led learning I also think it is important to gain a broad exposure to many different subjects and have at least a passing familiarity with the broad concepts in basic academic subjects.
One of the chief benefits of such broad exposure is the ability to make connections between subjects you do have an interest in and subjects you find less interesting. As T.S. Elliot once said “No one can become really educated without having pursued some study in which he took no interest. For it is part of education to interest ourselves in subjects for which we have no aptitude.”
In my curriculum I have organized the various academic subjects into the following categories:
Foundations: Education, Mathematics, Critical Thinking, Language, Life Skills
Moral Philosophy: Economics, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Psychology, Religion
Natural Philosophy: Astronomy, Biology, Chemistry, Geography, Geology, Physics
History: American History, World History, Ancient History, Greece and Rome, The Middle Ages, The Renaissance, Women in History, English History
Humanities: Art, Literature, Music, Plays, Poetry
One of my initial goals for this curriculum was to create a resource list including important books for each subject. To “complete” a course of study a student would need to read a certain minimum number of books in that subject. But, this leads us back to the original question: What does it mean to be well-read in a certain subject area? Can this be reduced to a specific number of books?
I think you need to begin any course of study with the stipulation that learning everything about that subject might be a worthy aspiration but it is not a realistic goal. One also has to remember that learning about a subject involves more than simply reading a set of books on that subject. So, you have to have time for things other than reading.
Let’s pick as an arbitrary number five books per subject. That comes to 150 books for the set of academic subjects I listed above. At the modest reading rate of 25 books per year that means becoming “well-read” in all of the subjects listed above would take 6 years.
I think you could make an argument that a student who went through such a curriculum could not only pass any exam given for any of these subjects at a high school (and possibly college) level but would also be vastly better educated than the average (or even above average high school graduate.
A student who went through this curriculum would not know everything there is to know about each of these subjects but would know enough to see how they were connected and would know enough to be able to learn more about any given subject if they so desired. In other words, they would have a solid educational foundation.