The 5-foot Shelf

 Have you ever heard of Dr. Eliot’s Five Foot Shelf? Me either, at least not until I stumbled across it while surfing through Wikipedia pages the other day. (I’m not the only one who does that, right?) Turns out Dr. Elliot was the inspiration for a well regarded series of books that could be a go-to reference for educators.

First a little history. Charles W. Elliot was the president of Harvard from 1869 to 1909. This is an important era in American education as this comes during the transition from old-style classicism to John Dewey inspired progressivism. Dr. Elliot represented a sensible middle ground. Old-style classicism had become in many ways a caricature of its former glory, more concerned with an archaic curriculum than the foundational ideas behind it. On the other hand many of Dewey’s followers created schools that were so child-centered that they ignored the importance of the content as well as the role of the teacher in a student’s education.

The Five Foot Shelf
Dr. Elliot has gone down in history as one of education’s great reformers, and rightly so, but he also had a deep love of the classics. Here is where the Five Foot Shelf comes in. Elliot was known for claiming that if you spent just 15 minutes a day reading the right books, an amount that could fit comfortably on a five foot shelf, you could give yourself a good liberal education.

P. F. Collier and Son saw a marketing opportunity and challenged Dr. Elliot to create his list and they would publish it. Thus was born The Harvard Classics.This is an amazing set if you, like me, are interested in a more classical approach to education. As much as Elliot tried to break from the past, he could not escape the fact that to become a truly educated person you must read the best writing.

Today’s schools, in an attempt at inclusiveness, often include subpar works. This resource allows you to fill in the gaps as it were.

It Costs How Much?!
Now for the bad news. The set is currently prices $400 at Amazon. Now don’t get me wrong, I’d love if you clicked this affiliate link to Amazon and purchased a set. I would happily pocket the commission safe in the knowledge that I recommended a solid educational resource. However, there is a much better and cheaper way to get a hold of this classic series.

The Internet Archive is a non-profit that was founded to build an Internet library. One of its products is The Harvard Classics. The most comprehensive and well-researched anthology of all time comprises both the 50-volume “5-foot shelf of books” and the the 20-volume Shelf of Fiction. Together they cover every major literary figure, philosopher, religion, folklore and historical subject through the twentieth century.n 1910, Dr. Charles W. Eliot, then President of Harvard University, put together an extraordinary library of “all the books needed for a real education.”

Adding This to My Bucket List
I for one am going to take up Dr. Eliot’s challenge, albeit 100 years late, and read for 15 minutes a day, going through this series. Admittedly this is a lifetime pursuit, but it is only 15 minutes a day. Surely anyone can spare that. And with the collection absolutely free there just isn’t a good reason not to attempt this goal. Does anyone want to join me?

Note: I wrote this a few years back, and sadly my quest to read 15 minutes of classics a day has gone on in fits and starts. It is still a long term goal, but my reading habits are so scatter shot that it may take me a lifetime!