England is without a doubt one of the most significant cultures of the modern world. Its language and cultural heritage infiltrates and influences every corner of the modern world. Its writers and philosophers and scientists created much of the foundation of our modern thinking. Its writers are among the world’s favorite and enduring. A grasp of the literature of this great civilization is a significant key to understanding how our diverse world has pulled together commercially, politically, and technologically along lines one would never have anticipated one hundred years ago when Great Britain’s global colonial structure was clearly declining in the face of growing powers elsewhere in the world.
The English Reader: What Every Literate Person Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2006, ISBN: 978-0195077292) edited by noted education historian Diane Ravitch and her son, Michael Ravitch, is an ideal introduction for a college bound student in the upper high school grades. Its a splendid “first taste” of the spread on the table in the next room beyond. At 512 pages, this anthology of English literature and thinkers manages to cover a lot of ground. At 512 pages, a high school student would also get an introduction to lugging around just one of the many big books they’ll acquire in college, though the digitization trend will have those days ending sometime soon in the future.
This anthology includes many core documents, including Queen Elizabeth’s speech before the impending invasion by the Spanish Armada, Winston Churchills stirring and gripping orations of World War II, poets Donne, Shakespeare, and Milton, philosophers such as J.S. Mill, Hobbes, and Locke, and revolutionary scientists such as Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin.
Somehow or other, many people believe that literary greats are not accessible to the common person. This is not true. This has more to do with our expectations and how we are NOT taught to learn than to what is written. Its true that some deliberatly write in an obscurant style, and others write in a style long abandoned, but for the most part, what is difficult to understand requires little more than a good dictionary and some rumination – both indispensible tools of learning. If you don’t know the word, look it up. If its worth knowing, its worth spending some extra time thinking about it. We should have outgrown Sesame Street some time ago.