Popular Posts

Thursday, 30 July 2015

The "Imagine" Reality Check: Universities

  The very first universities had a religious basis, with the first three universities ever founded and still in existence being in the Islamic tradition.  Morocco, Egypt and Iran each have a university whose origins go back to the years 859, 970 and 1065, respectively.  Natural sciences and religious studies did not conflict with one another at such schools.
   The next universities to be established outside the Middle East were the University of Bologna (1088 in Italy) and the University of Paris (1096 in France).  These later dates, however, are a bit misleading.  These institutions did not just spring up without a context.  The University of Bologna arose as a centre of the study of law: church law as well as Roman law [1].  Furthermore, the places that become European universities in the 11th and 12th centuries started out as cathedral-based schools.  Here bishops had taken responsibility for teaching the next generation of priests and church leaders from at least the 6th century A.D.  by teaching them the Bible and doctrine but also literacy in Latin grammar.  The University of Paris was anything but secular when it first opened.  It was divided into four sections: Arts, Medicine, Law and Theology, but before attaining a legal, medical or theological degree all students had to complete the liberal arts course of study [2].  In the same way, cathedral schools were also the precursor of Britain’s prestigious Oxford and Cambridge Universities.
   Turning to the “new world,” Harvard was established in 1636 and the College of William and Mary began in 1693, both while America still consisted of a collection of colonies.  Harvard was founded by a group of Puritans who had arrived in Massachusetts just sixteen years earlier.  They recognized the importance of education for the future of the colony and its proper development.  The motto they chose was “Veritas,” Latin for truth.  Its first benefactor, John Harvard, died one year after coming to the new world, but he gave his complete library and half of his estate to the fledgling institution.  In gratitude, it was named in his honour.  The College of William and Mary’s charter said it was to be a “perpetual College of Divinity, Philosophy, Languages, and other good Arts and Sciences.”  Thomas Jefferson attended this school about 70 years after its founding, and at that time all but one of the professors on staff were clergymen. That small fact indicates that higher education and Christian faith were not seen as incompatible during the years around American Independence.
   In New France (now the largely French-speaking part of Canada) Jesuit priests accompanied settlers and adventurers in the early 1600’s.  They established basic schools widely; within 50 years they also had a central institution of higher education to prepare young men to the Jesuit priesthood.  Laval University proudly traces its heritage back to 1663 but on its public site makes no mention of the faith commitment of its first founders.  Montreal’s Concordia University, founded in 1848 as Loyola College, had a similar origin. [3]
   The oldest English speaking university in Canada is located in the Maritimes: the University of New Brunswick.  It was founded in 1785, about a decade after the American Revolution by British refugees, who did not favor cutting ties with the Empire and thus moved northward.  The initial goal of such a school was to give youth a “virtuous education” in the following areas: Religion, Literature, Loyalty and good Morals. It set out to offer enrolment to students regardless of the particular church denomination they might belong to, but it was largely run by Anglican-based leadership. [4] 
   Coming at last to Ontario, Canada, there are now 19 public universities to which students can apply via one centralized system.  Of these, fourteen had a clear faith-based origin, as explained on the “history” section of their websites.  Two examples from the nation’s capital would be appropriate even though they were founded 94 years apart:
1)       University of Ottawa started out in 1848 as the College of Bytown founded by a Roman Catholic bishop.  He handed over the control of the school to the society of Mary Immaculate.  In 1965 this religious institution was renamed St. Paul’s University and the name University of Ottawa was given to the liberal arts program.  St. Paul’s University continues to be affiliated with the University of Ottawa.
2)      Carleton University in Ottawa began in 1942 and boasts being the first “non-denominational” university in Ontario.  That does not mean it set itself up against faith, but that it would not favour any particular Christian background.  The YMCA of Ottawa was instrumental in establishing this school at a time when “YMCA” meant more than a pool and fitness club.  Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) was a community centre that engaged youth in integrating faith in different aspects of life.

   Universities as institutions where young adults can learn specialized skills and take their place in society are highly respected in the West.  The pioneering effort of churches and visionary church leaders cannot be underestimated.  The funds raised to construct the first buildings did not come from government grants but from grass roots people (some of whom had wealth to share) who felt that moral and constructive learning for future generations was important.  Without that heritage starting in Europe, would we really have these schools of excellence today?  While most Western universities have currently shifted their focus away from faith, they would not exist at all if we had a world with no vestiges of religion.

[1] Gerald L. Gutek A History of the Western Educational Experience.  (1995), p. 100-101
[4] http://www.unb.ca/aboutunb/history/historicalsketch.html

Monday, 27 July 2015

The "Imagine" Reality Check: Universal Education

In North America and Western Europe we consider it normal that each child (male and female) be given an education up to the age of 18 at no cost to the parents, but consider educational opportunities for children on other continents:

Education in India (whether by guru or in Islamic madrasas) has traditionally been reserved for boys in the upper castes.  The first group to offer schooling to children of lower castes were Christian missionaries in the early 1800’s.  As of 2010, the Right of Education Act promises to deliver local & universal free education to all children up to the age of 14.  According to an article in the British newspaper the Guardian (May 2013), schools in South Delhi are overcrowded and inadequately staffed.  Culturally, girls are not given the same opportunities to study.  The poor suffer the most because the people of India who are well off opt out of the public education system and pay for private instruction. Provisions for disabled children are minimal. [1]

This nation in Central America offers education up to and including 5th grade, but school uniforms and school supplies are to be paid for by the parents.  When parents are unable to afford these items, children do not attend school.  Often children living in poverty are also kept out of school in order to help at home.  Lack of teacher training and accountability results in lower standards of education. [2]

According to UNICEF,
Schools are struggling to meet the needs of Zambian children. At least 1,500 classrooms per year need to be constructed to accommodate all those eligible. Lowered enrollment rates result from this lack of school places and the long distances needed to travel when schools are in rural areas. Quality of teaching, with so few trained teachers within the educational system, is an issue of concern.
Parents are committed to educating their children but the distance to school and poverty levels mean that poor households cannot manage the cost of students’ uniform and supplies, despite the introduction in Zambia of free basic education to 7th grade. [3]

How is it that universal education up to age 18 has been a mainstay in the West?  The Christian influence cannot be overlooked:

  • Some of the first schools that did not charge tuition fees to students were Jesuit schools in Europe [4].  The Jesuits are a Roman Catholic order that established a system of school starting around 1545 because they saw education and piety being hand in hand.  Contrary to what one might expect, these schools for boys were not primarily aimed at educating new priests.
  • Education for children in England’s working classes was first offered by churches who held Sunday Schools.  These children often worked more than 12 hours per day, six days per week.  They had Sundays off, so enterprising pastor, Robert Raikes [5] saw the opportunity to give these disadvantaged children a chance to become literate and able to function in society.  For about 90 years (1780’s-1870), Sunday schools (which also spread to America and the continent) were more about reading, writing and arithmetic than they were about teaching Bible stories, although the Bible was indeed the reading textbook.  Boys and girls were allowed to attend, and classes were taught by both men and women.  After children had graduated from Sunday School, they had the opportunity to become teachers and leaders as well, providing a form of empowerment. [6]  The state took over in providing daily education to all students, but would it have done so if its success had not been first modeled by Sunday Schools?
  • Edgerton Ryerson, the superintendent for Canada West (the early name for Ontario, Canada), was a Methodist pastor and educator.  His vision for universal, compulsory education for children up to the high school level was the blueprint for the School Act of 1871.  Morality was not seen as an “add-on” but would be taught in and through the subject matter.  Ryerson also valued the existing church-based universities as the destination for high school graduates.


Universities in Western culture are held in high esteem as places of learning and free thought.  Who can we thank for these halls of higher education?

[4] Ignatius of Loyola: Founder of the Jesuits  by John Patrick Donnelly (2004), page131
[5] Raikes was not a single-issue Christian leader.  He was also involved in prison reform and hospital care.

Friday, 24 July 2015

The "Imagine" Reality Check: Humane Prisons

   Singer/songwriter John Lennon wanted people to "imagine there's no heaven...no religion too." Applying that vision specifically to what the world would be like without the Christian religion, I will begin by looking at what it would mean for prisons and punishment.

   First of all, I will begin with three true accounts of what prisons are like outside of North America and Western Europe.  I am indebted to the Voice of the Martyrs and Amnesty International for these stories.

  • In Eritrea (neighbour to the East African nation of Ethiopia), prisoners are tortured through beatings with iron bars.  They are housed in unventilated metal shipping containers that are frigid at night and sweltering hot during the day.  There are no hygiene facilities and the food provided is both unsanitary and inadequate (two breads and dirty water) [1]
  • In the Chinese capital of Beijing, at the Haidian Detention Centre, prisoners are interrogated cruelly and without the advocacy of a lawyer.  Shi Weihan was stripped of his clothes and placed against the wall outdoors in winter time.  His handcuffed wrists were placed behind his neck and hooked to the wall.  Electric shock batons were used on him as well as cold water for hours at a time.[2]
  • In the country of Iran in April 2014, prisoner Farshid Fathi had his foot broken by a guard who stomped on it with his heavy boot to stop him from aiding a fellow inmate who had been beaten.  For three days he was denied medical treatment or any relief of pain. [3]
   Then from history classes, we are also aware of various regimes who have established labour camps where prisoners are forced to do back-breaking physical work for 10-12 hours a day with little in terms of nourishment.  Prisons in England up until the late 1800's were rampant with sickness, overcrowding and filth.

   What brought about more humane conditions in prisons throughout England and its colonies? The influence of two Christian people, who put their faith into action.

1) John Howard (1726-1790) lived in England and experienced first-hand the prison conditions in France when the merchant ship he was on was captured by a French privateer.  At the age of 47 he was appointed High Sheriff of Bedfordshire, becoming responsible for its prison.  When he saw conditions there, he felt compelled to investigate prisons throughout England, Scotland and Wales. He wrote and published detailed and factual reports alerting British society and government for needed reforms.  It took some time for his reforms to be accepted, but he continued to advocate for prisoners and tried to visit other countries in Europe to do so.  According to the biography included on the website of The John Howard Society of Canada, Howard had the following priorities:  

"Clean, healthy accommodation with the provision of adequate clothing and linen; segregation of prisoners according to sex, age and nature of offence; proper health care: these were his priorities. There should be a Chaplain service because he was of his age in believing that spiritual starvation was a major obstacle to reformation of character. Finally, he was a firm believer in the work ethic and the need for prisoners to be provided with work in order that the sin of idleness could be combatted." [4]

   John Howard was motivated by his religious beliefs, rooted in Calvinism and the compassion of Christ for the suffering.  In the same year of Canada's founding (1867), the John Howard Society of Canada formed with a group of Christians ministering to prisoners with spiritual help.  Interestingly, the biography of its namesake that appears on the society's website goes out of its way to distance itself from his narrow-minded views and insults Howard's ideal prison as "a hygenic and well-run zoo."

2) Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845) was a Quaker.  This Christian group was active in social causes and were strong pacifists.  Fry began to be an unlikely leader at the age of 12 when her mother died and household responsibilities fell to her.  When older, she led literacy classes for children who could not afford to attend school and also preached in her church.
   After visiting prisons in Northern England and Scotland, Fry recognized that in the current situation, any prisoner that would eventually be released would be no better than when he or she was arrested.  No attention whatsoever was given to rehabilitation.  Some of her ideas were to instill self-respect in prisoners by giving them responsibilities, education and meaningful work to do.  She had opportunity to testify at a House of Commons committee inquiring into prison conditions.  By raising an issue that many chose to ignore, Fry was instrumental in setting new standards of humane treatment of the imprisoned.
   Local Elizabeth Fry Societies have been established in Canada starting in Vancouver in 1939 to specifically assist women who have found themselves in trouble with the law.  
   I go into a Canadian federal prison for women almost every week.  I see that there are still areas to improve, but when I compare the living conditions to what they have been in the past and what they are elsewhere in the world, I see the blessing of Christians who dared to advocate for criminals. Without the teachings of Jesus being taken seriously by John Howard and Elizabeth Fry and without their courage to speak up, our penal system in the West would be unrecognizable. 

[1] Click on the highlighted words for full article from Amnesty International
[2]video interview with Shi Weihan
[3] More information about Fathi's time in prison can be found here
[4]The full biography can be found here

The "Imagine" Reality Check: Introduction

   Today I'm beginning a new series of posts I'm calling "The 'Imagine' Reality Check." John Lennon of The Beatles fame voiced the following in his solo offering entitled "Imagine":

Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today...

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace...
(emphasis mine)

   This thought that our world would be better off without religion, and more specifically without Christianity, has been echoed by academics and men on the street since the song was released in 1971.  Religious wars, the atrocities of the Crusades and the abuse of Native children at church-run residential schools easily come to mind as negative by-products of religion.  I readily admit that the track record of all those who have carried the name Christian is not stellar.
   Nevertheless, I strongly believe that the positive legacy of Christianity in Europe, North America and beyond reaches farther and wider than most people realize.  Over the coming weeks, I will attempt to show that the kinds of things ALL people value and consider "givens" in Western culture would simply disappear if the late John Lennon's vision were to become a reality.


   Every culture has a way of dealing with those who break its fundamental rules.  The institutional form common in most nations is prison.  In my next post, I will demonstrate that the current system of humane prisons in North America and Western Europe is a direct legacy guided by two prominent individuals inspired by a Christian world view.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

The Language of Math

   You could say that each discipline or area of academic study has its own language and terminology. This is true also for mathematics.  The symbols and numbers enable us to think about our world in terms of size, shape and quantity.  One of the interesting things about math is that, until you get to word problems, foreign students are able to continue to excel in this subject even if their language skills are lacking.
   However, I recently came to realize how one's language of instruction does have an impact upon mathematical knowledge and understanding, thanks to Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers: The Story of Success.  He points out that the words for numbers in some languages either help or hinder mathematical understanding.  I learned English and Dutch virtually simultaneously before the age of six, so I did not spend much time analyzing the differences between them at that time.  I do remember noticing at one point, no doubt influenced by the fact that I was learning math at school in English, that in Dutch the numbers above 20 seemed backwards to me.  In English, we say "twenty-five", but in Dutch it's literally "five-and-twenty."  (Apparently at some point in history English used that same format of placing the ones before the tens, as preserved in the nursery rhyme "Sing a Song of Sixpence" where "four-and-twenty blackbirds" were baked in a pie.)
   What dawned on me this week is that English has it more backwards than Dutch.  In the numbers between 13 and 19, we place the ones before the ten (or "teen") as we say these numbers.  However, after twenty, English reverses them and places the ones last.
From The Chinese Quest website
   Gladwell did not speak about Dutch in his book; instead he spoke about Chinese.  The words for the numbers 1-9 in Mandarin & Cantonese are much shorter and quicker to say than in English and most other languages.  In addition, after ten they follow a consistent pattern divided into tens and ones.  So, for example, literally 34 is stated as "three-tens-four" and 19 is "one-ten-nine."  These simple differences alone mean that an average Chinese child can count to 40 at the age of 4, while Canadian/American children are expected to reach only 15 by age 4.
   A second mathematical advantage in Chinese has to do with its words for fractions.  We say 3/4 or three-quarters.  For the child learning this, it is not particularly visual.  Yet in Chinese, it is more like "out of four parts, take three" (Gladwell, p. 230).
    Even though math is considered to be a language one can use without words, it would seem from this simple analysis that one's language does influence whether math is seen as a simple, logical discipline or a difficult, frustrating one.

Monday, 20 July 2015

A Happy Meal: a story for kids who are camping

Have hidden in a plastic container: a slice of bread with a thin layer of butter or margarine on top

Have you ever had a Happy Meal®? What was in your Happy Meal®?  Why did it make you happy?

Now, imagine if I promised to give you a "Happy Sandwich."  What would need to be on it for you to be happy about it?  Maybe you would like a thick layer of mayonnaise followed by slices of cheese and strips of bacon.  Another person would prefer a fried egg with salt and pepper, and still another would be happiest with peanut butter and blueberry jam.

Would you like to see the happy sandwich that I made/brought with me?  (Open up the container and show the children.) What do you think?  Would it make you happy?  Why would I even call it a Happy Sandwich?

This is the name my grandmother gave to a plain slice of bread that had only margarine on it.  My grandmother is in heaven now, but when she was a little girl this kind of sandwich was what she ate for breakfast AND supper everyday because her parents did not have a lot of money.  She called it a Happy Sandwich because she was happy with what she had.  At least she had something to eat instead of nothing.

Another word for being happy with what you have is being "content" or "satisfied."  It is the difference between saying "Thank you" to God instead of complaining "Do I have to eat THAT?"  It is the difference between saying "Thank you" to God for your clothes instead of complaining "All my friends have nicer things than I do."

When my grandmother was older, she had times when he had wonderful things on her bread.  She was a little bit like Paul in the Bible, who said in Philippians 4:12-13:
"I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty.  I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do everything through Christ who strengthens me."
Being happy with what you have is also something we can learn when we are camping.  At home we have a bathroom nearby, but when we are camping we have to walk a long way to use the bathroom. Also the bathroom at home is usually much cleaner than the one at a park. At home we are not bothered much when it rains, but when we are camping it means our tent might get soaked or we are stuck inside our camper.  In our homes we have so much stuff, but when we are camping we only have the basics with us.  When we are camping and we are happy with what we have, then we will be extra thankful when we go home and appreciate those blessings even more.

It should not matter if we have a little or a lot; Jesus is with us no matter what.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Work with God

From Abingdon Press catalogue
   "Work with God" were yesterday's Wonder Words at the Kid's Bible Camp at my church.  My role was the Bible story teller.  The church was using the same theme kit that another church had used last year, but the special booklet for "Bible Nook" seemed to be missing. The comprehensive director's guide gave a brief outline of what would be taught in the Bible Nook, including the passage from which the story was taken, the Wonder Words, the Vision Verse, the different acting parts and the names of Bible learning activities.  What was missing was the actual script and the description of the activities.
   Being a teacher, I did not mind having to come up with the specifics of the Bible lesson.  My husband quipped that even if I had received ready-made curriculum I would have changed it to make it my own.  He is right.  One day the story was told as a news report interview of the Bible character Zerubbabel (see Ezra chapter 3), while another day certain students took the roles Esther, King Xerxes and Haman as I read the account of events.
   As we came to the fourth lesson, the Bible story was to be Jesus' miraculous feeding of the 5,000.  With the Wonder Words of "Work with God," I was initially unclear how I would frame the story to bring across that idea.  As I pondered the story for a while and prayed for inspiration, the following came to me:
What is something you know how to do all by yourself?  (Students answer).  Would you ever ask someone else to help you when you already know how to do it? (No)  Imagine that your little brother or sister wants to help you do one of the things you said: (ride your bike, make a sandwich, write your name).  What might happen? (Students answer) It might be a lot more messy and frustrating than if you did it by yourself.  It would also probably take longer.  That's because you don't NEED their help.
Now I want you to think about a mom or dad who is building a tree house.  Their little boy or girl who's in Kindergarten wants to help.  Do you think the adult needs that help? The little child cannot hold the heavy hammer at all, and it would be too dangerous to use the saw to cut the pieces of wood.  The parent does not really need the little child's help, but because of love and wanting to spend time together, a good parent will try to thing of a job that the little child can do.  Maybe this job is something like passing the nails or sweeping up sawdust.  The parent lets the little child work with him or her, even though it might slow things down.
The way this parent lets the child "work with him" is just like how God works with us.  God is so powerful that He can do anything.  He made the whole world starting with nothing.  He does not actually need our help, but since he made us humans to be in relationship with him, he asks us to work with him.  He gives us things we can do.  In today's story we will see that Jesus let someone else "help" feed a hungry crowd.  He could have provided food without the little boy's lunch, but Jesus lets him be involved in the miracle.
Read/act out the account from John 6: 1-13
The little boy "worked with God" to feed the hungry crowd.  Let's think of other ways that people can "work with God."  God wants to heal people who are sick.  How can people "work with God" to do that?  They can be doctors, nurses, massage therapists. They can bring soup or a blanket to someone who is sick, and they can pray for the sick person to be made well.  God wants people to hear the good news about Jesus.  How can people "work with God" to help that happen?  They can tell others, be missionaries, pastors and teachers.  They can pray and give money so that others can go and tell. Children and grown ups get to "work with God": he lets us help even when we might make a mistake or slow Him down.

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Mythbusters: Fur Farm Edition

  Over the past couple of months two fur farms in Ontario, Canada were targeted by animal rights activists.  In the first incident on May 30th 2015 about 1500 adult mink were released from their cages. Then again this week over 6500 fur bearing animals that had been born earlier this spring were "freed" from a different farm.
   Several myths have been brought to the forefront by such activist groups, and without a knowledge of what actually goes on at a fur farm, the general public may be misled.

Myth #1 Fur Farmers only care about profit
   Fur farms in Ontario are often family-run operations that take years to build up in size.  While people think about fur coats as an expensive luxury, the amount of money a fur farmer earns is only a fraction of the final price of a garment.  If the farmer cared only about the amount of money he is earning, it would not be enough motivation for the long hours and up-front costs (food, vaccinations, infrastructure, and pens) required.  My parents were fur farmers for about fifty years; they genuinely cared for the well-being of their animals not just because the loss of an animal cut into their profits.  It was a way of life that entailed respect and up-close learning about the life cycle of one of God's creatures.

Myth #2 Raising an animal for its fur is wasteful
   At first glance, fur-bearing animals raised for their fur may appear to be like poaching elephants for their tusks or black bears for their gall bladders.  However, in the fur industry, every part of a mink or fox left after the pelt has been taken off is put to a use.  For example the oils are used in various cosmetics and waterproofing for leather footwear.  As well, the food that is prepared for farm-raised fur bearing animals to eat is not taken from the human food chain; rather meats and proteins that are undesirable or substandard for human consumption are being used in a productive way.

Myth #3 Farm animals would survive better in the wild
   When activists break open cages to release animals into the wild, they think the animals will be better off.  However, when such a large number of creatures is added to an ecosystem, the balance is upset. There will not be enough food to sustain them all; since the farm-raised animals have a place of warmth and shelter, placing them into the wild at certain seasons of the year is particularly perilous. For example, during the May 30th incident, nursing females were released, leaving their milk-dependent babies without warmth and nourishment.  The weather that night was also particularly cold, adding to the problem.
   A few times during my dad's farming career, people would phone him about a mink that was causing a nuisance on their property.  When he went to these places, he could tell immediately if the mink was farm-raised or wild.  The size alone is a significant difference, with wild mink being smaller.  Wild mink have to find their own food and face different predators, including great horned owls, coyotes and wolves (and other mink!).

   Even if some people do not agree with the raising of animals for their fur, they do not then have the right to damage private property and commit acts of vandalism like this.  By taking the law into their own hands, such activists discredit their cause.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

"What to Read"

Freerange stock photo
 I suppose my love of books partly originated with my dad's youngest brother.  Since he was just five years old when the family of eight children immigrated to Canada from the Netherlands, he was able to take the fullest advantage of education in English.  As a result, he was the only one who earned a high school diploma, not to mention two university degrees. I looked up to him as a learned man.
   During my growing up years, Uncle John's books took up considerable space in my parents' home: on bookshelves and under crawlspaces.  He had been a book collector since his youth, so when he went to Nigeria, West Africa for five years my parents agreed to store his books as well as an assemblage of furniture he had accumulated from auction sales.  It has become part of my family mythology that when all these books were boxed up and moved to Uncle John's permanent house, the structure itself lifted as if with relief.
   At the age of 13 I considered it a privilege to spend a week at Uncle John's spacious Victorian house, which had one room designated as a library.  However, even the library could not hold all the books he owned.  Shelves spanned many of the walls on each floor.  I remember my joy at starting and finishing a new book each day I was there.  When Uncle John sent a box of his "discards" my way, it was like receiving a treasure.
   One of those discarded books that came into my possession was written in 1962 by Abraham Lass; its title was How to Prepare for College.  Its fifth chapter was called "What to Read," and my sister and I took to heart the lists of classics we should read during our four years of high school.  The list for 9th grade alone contained 44 titles, including three Shakespeare plays and tomes by Charles Dickens, Jules Verne and Sir Walter Scott.  As I scan those pages today, I can see the check marks we placed beside each book we had read.  Alas, neither of us finished all of these books despite the fact that we both graduated from university about 20 years ago!
   I have taken two lessons from this list of "What to Read":
1)  Times have changed.  In 1962, there was a higher standard for what made a person "educated."  Attending college was an elite destination rather than the norm.  Liberal arts education, where a scholar knew a wide range of subjects, was more common, but today's graduates are often so specialized in a technical subject.  Sadly, they can complete a university program without having opened a work of literature.
2) Even though I kind of make fun of my past self for trying to read a list of books chosen by a single principal from Brooklyn, New York, it was good to be challenged in this way.  While my own parents were literate and intelligent, they did not have a background in these works of literature. Without the list, I may not have been pushed to consider some of the great books of Western civilization, like Pilgrim's Progress and Les Miserables.  Those who use best seller's lists and Oprah's book club to decide what's worth reading may well be missing out on worthwhile books from an earlier era.

Have you ever read a book or books because they were on a "list"?  Please leave a comment telling me about it.