What 14-Year-Olds Studied in Early America

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Abraham Lincoln's Home in Kentucky

Abraham Lincoln's Backyard in Kentucky

Before entering school at the age of fourteen or fifteen, American students in this period were expected to be able to speak Latin, and in college they were fined for not speaking in Latin, except during recreation. Latin was the language of most of their textbooks and lectures. The New Testament Greek was required for admission, and in Greek they also studied Homer and Longinus. In Latin the chief authors were Cicero, Vergil, and Horace. A continued interest in the classics was usual. “Every accomplished gentleman,” says Wertenbaker, “was supposed to know his Homer and his Ovid, and in conversation was put to shame if he failed to recognize a quotation from either.” Self-made men, like Benjamin Franklin, without the benefit of college, derived more from the ancient world than one would expect, but the more typical Founding Fathers meditated long and deeply on the ancient patterns of democracy and republics, and Jefferson was only expressing a frequent view of his time when he said of ancient literature: “The Greeks and Romans have left us the present models which exist of fine composition whether we examine them as works of reason, or style, or fancy… To read the Latin and Greek authors in the original is a sublime luxury.” The history, philosophy, and literature of the ancients did not seem remote or antiquated, but intimately present because permanently enlightening.                                        

-Image of America, by Prof. Norman Foerster, University of Notre Dame Press, 1957

Dr. Mortimer Adler Video on C-SPAN

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C.S. Lewis: “On the Reading of Old Books”

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“The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism.” – C.S. Lewis, On the Reading of Old Books  

Update: Our good friend, Max Weismann, just sent us this excellent quote:

Machiavelli on Reading Great Books . . .Niccolò Machiavelli’s letter to his friend, Francesco Vettori  (1513)
“When evening has come, I return to my house and go into my study. At the door I take off my clothes of the day, covered with mud and mire, and I put on my regal and courtly garments; and decently reclothed, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them lovingly, I feed on the food that alone is mine and that I was born for. There I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reasons for their actions; and they in their humanity reply to me. And for the space of four hours I feel no boredom, I forget every pain, I do not fear poverty, death does not frighten me. ”