Five-Year Humanities Plan

By request, here is the “five-year plan” that my older son is following.

Introduction and educational strategy

What this document is. This is a roadmap for the next five years of your course of study in humanities. It does not cover science, the parts of social science outside of humanities, or math. It does cover (or should) everything else, but at a very high level. Art and music are not listed beyond generalities, and many minor works that you might read are also not covered.

Use the maximum number of years before college: five. Since you’re just now finishing up seventh grade, you have five more years of official school before you’re college age. Now, it might be possible for you to complete all the requirements for a high school diploma before that, but the way I see it, the more advanced you are when you are ready to apply to college, the wider the range of colleges you’ll be able to be accepted at. If you do advanced high school and college-level work until you’re 18, in 2024, then you’ll be much better able to get into (and to be able to handle) the best sort of university you might want to get into.

Math constrains when you are considered “done.” Besides, if you were ready to “graduate early,” it would be because you had finished math early; you don’t get a STEM degree today if you didn’t go through at least one year of calculus in high school. Since you will finish algebra in eighth grade, it’s unlikely you’ll finish calculus until you’re a junior or senior (although you might finish before the end of your senior year).

The nature of the program I’ve got you started on. I have you started on a “classical humanities” program, which means there’s an emphasis on classical literature, but that we intend to go through all of history (especially Western civilization) by comparing history and literature, and to a lesser extent art, religion, and philosophy. “History” includes not just thick summaries of history like Susan Wise Bauer’s History of the Ancient World, which you will read all of over the first few years, but also source books like Herodotus, speeches, myths, etc. The “source” materials ends up overlapping with religion, especially in ancient history, and with archaeology, as you’ve already seen. “Literature” includes mostly novels when you get to the 18th century or so, but before that includes mostly poetry, many plays, and some stories (modern short stories as well as fairy tales, etc.). “Art” includes not just the study of paintings but also sculpture and architecture and even archaeology again. “Religion” includes not just holy books like the Bible but also what might better be considered mythology, as well as some ancillary but important writings like Luther’s 95 Theses. “Philosophy” includes stuff like Plato and Descartes but also some influential thought-provoking essays like Machiavelli’s The Prince and Montaigne’s Essays.

You can’t do it all. Even though you have five whole years (and more, since there’s the summer before your eighth grade and the summer after your 12th grade) before you are 18 in the fall (that’ll be 2024), when many young adults apply for college, there is no possible way you can read “all the classics” in that time. This isn’t because you’re going slowly (since you started going through Hesiod and Homer, it’s been easier to see what pace you can get through this material), it’s because there is so much in the way of classics. There are extra readings, like the stories from ancient Sumeria and the Egyptian Book of the Dead, that maybe we should have skipped if we’re going to focus on the most important stuff, but I’m not going to sweat that. Reading all that alongside the Bible was actually a great introduction to ancient texts, so that now you can go through more important classics like Homer more confidently and appreciating them more.

The general strategy: the essential highlights. But if you can’t do it all, how can we decide what you should do? Well, having studied all of the humanities myself (though I certainly have not read “all the classics”), I have a rough idea of how much there is to read, that is totally essential, in the different eras of Western history. So I propose that you study as follows:

  • ancient subjects: 1.5 years
  • medieval and Renaissance topics: 0.5 years
  • early modern and Enlightenment (including early American) topics: one year
  • nineteenth and 20th century topics: two years

What I don’t want to happen is that you get finished with a certain part of history and there remains several essential (not just “important,” but absolutely crucial) classics you haven’t read, and so you end up skipping them. What are examples of “absolutely crucial” classics? You’re reading one now: the Odyssey. Some others include Herodotus, Plato’s Republic, the New Testament (at least parts of it), Dante’s Inferno, the most important Shakespeare plays, etc. When you get into more modern times, it becomes more controversial or hard to decide what is “absolutely crucial,” but ones I think you must have read would include Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre in British literature, at least one great Russian novel such as Anna Karenina (but probably both that and Crime and Punishment), in American literature Moby Dick and Huckleberry Finn, and in American history both the Constitution and at least a selection from the Federalist Papers. These are the books that are embarrassing not to have read if you want to call yourself educated, although plenty of badly educated people skipped many of these. I’ve read 95% of them.

A good idea of what the “great books” are can be found by looking at Britannica’s list, compiled by philosopher Mortimer Adler.

The rest of this document will be an outline of what you’ll study, with the “crucial” books listed. I’m not 100% sure of this list. The ones I have in bold are my best guesses about what the most important books are. Some of the other books are probably just as crucial; maybe some don’t belong on the list, and maybe there are some books that aren’t on the list, that I have forgotten about. So we will revisit this list before starting each period.

Art and Archaeology books. Books to consult include:

  • The Art Museum
  • The Story of Art
  • A World History of Art
  • The Great Book of Archaeology

Why not use a lot of anthologies? In some cases, anthologies will be our friends. For example, rather than buy each Greek play individually, we’ll probably just buy one or two anthologies. But my bias will be to have you read entire works, or at least very substantial extracts, rather than a little bit from everything. “A little bit from everything” ends up being both boring and confusing, and a great deal is lost from many great writings if you don’t view it as a whole. That is especially true of literature and much of philosophy. It is less true when selecting from things like essays, speeches, and aphorisms. As to history, the more of a work, the better; just a little of any history is pretty useless, but cutting a bit here and there can be fine.

That said, selections were made from most of the following. Reading all of the whole list would probably be impossible for the vast majority of students; there’s just too much to do.

Lectures. You will continue to watch lectures to go with the readings from The Great Courses Plus, The Great Courses (audiobook versions, cheaper), and YouTube when nothing is available from those sources.

Ancient Times

March 2019 through December 2020 (ages 12 through 14)

Earliest Civilizations

Unit 1: Earliest History, Especially Mesopotamia (finished)

  • Myths from Mesopotamia; particularly, Gilgamesh
  • The Old Testament, selections from the Pentateuch
  • The Code of Hammurabi

Unit 2: Egypt and Other Pre-Greek Civilizations (finished)

  • Green, Tales of Ancient Egypt
  • The Tale of Sinuhe, trans. R.B. Parkinson
  • The Book of the Dead

Ancient Greece

June 2019 – May 2020

Unit 3: Early Greece (mostly finished; through June 15)

  • Hesiod, Theogony and Works and Days
  • Homer, The Iliad
  • Homer, The Odyssey

Unit 4: Foundational Texts of Eastern Religion

  • Confucius, Analects
  • Selections from Buddhist texts; see Anthology of World Scriptures and Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions
  • Selections from earliest Hindu texts
  • Tao Te Ching

Unit 5: Herodotus and the Persian Wars

  • Herodotus, Histories
  • More of the Old Testament (prophesy, exile, and post-exile)

Unit 6: Greek Poetry and Theater

  • A bit of the presocratics, from Hakim, Historical Introduction to Philosophy
  • Greek Lyrics, trans. Lattimore
  • Aeschylus: Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, Eumenides
  • Sophocles: Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus (summary), Antigone
  • Euripides: Medea
  • Aristotle, Poetics

Unit 7: Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War

  • Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War
  • The Trial and Death of Socrates (already read; re-read on your own)
  • Aristophanes, The Clouds
  • Plato, Symposium

Unit 8: Greek Philosophy

  • Plato, The Republic, Bk. 1-2, 6-9 (selections)
  • Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (selections)

Unit 9: The Hellenistic Period

  • Plutarch, Life of Alexander
  • Old Testament, post-exilic selections
  • Bhagavad-Gita selections
  • Epicurus selections
  • Throughout, look at, read about, and react to major works of art

Ancient Rome

Unit 10: Early Rome (753-292 B.C.)

  • Re-read your own Daily Writings and lecture notes
  • Livy, Books 1-10 and Moses Hadad, Ed., A history of ROME

Unit 11: Punic Wars (292-134 B.C.)

  • Livy, Books 21-45 and Hadad
  • Plautus, The Braggart Soldier, The Brothers Menaechmus
  • Terence, The Girl from Andros, The Mother-in-Law, and The Eunuch
  • Cato the Elder, On Agriculture

Unit 12: The Late Republic and the Civil War (133-44 B.C.)

  • Cicero selections
  • Sallust and Hadad
  • Lucretius (maybe)
  • Caesar, one or both of On the War in Gaul and On the Civil War
  • Catullus short selections
  • Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

Unit 13-nn: The Early Roman Empire (44 B.C. – 284 A.D.) NEEDS BREAKING UP; NOT ALL NEEDS TO BE DONE

  • Virgil, Aeneid
  • Virgil, Georgics
  • The New Testament, selections
  • Seneca
  • Epictetus
  • Marcus Aurelius
  • Ovid, Metamorphoses
  • Lucan, The Civil War
  • Petronius, The Satyricon
  • Tacitus, Annals
  • Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars
  • Juvenal, Satires
  • Longus, Daphnis and Chloe

Unit nn: The Later Roman Empire (284-476 A.D.)

  • Augustine, Confessions
  • Look at, read about, and react to major works of art

Medieval period

Spring 2021 through Fall 2021 (age 15)

  • Re-read your own Daily Writings and lecture notes
  • Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy
  • The Koran (also spelled Qur’an; selections; I’ve read only bits)
  • Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People
  • The Song of Roland
  • Chretien de Troyes, Arthurian Romances
  • The Lais of Marie de France
  • Beowulf
  • Aquinas (selections)
  • Dante, The Divine Comedy
  • One Thousand and One Nights
  • Boccaccio, The Decameron
  • Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales
  • Look at, read about, and react to major works of art

Renaissance, Early Modern, & Enlightenment periods

Winter 2021-22 through Summer 2022 (ages 15 through 16)

  • Re-read your own Daily Writings and lecture notes
  • Machiavelli, The Prince
  • Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel
  • Erasmus, The Praise of Folly
  • More, Utopia
  • Montaigne, Essays (selections)
  • Shakespeare, plays you haven’t read and selected sonnets
  • Galileo, Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences
  • Cervantes, Don Quixote
  • Descartes, Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy
  • Milton, Paradise Lost
  • Milton, Areopagitica
  • Pascal, Pensees
  • Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress
  • Locke, Second Essay Concerning Civil Government
  • Swift, Gulliver’s Travels
  • Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality and The Social Contract
  • Rousseau, Confessions
  • Declaration of Independence and the Constitution (done, but re-read alone)
  • The Federalist
  • An anthology of shorter poetry and drama (Moliere, Racine, Voltaire) from this period
  • Listen to/look at, read about, and react to major works of classical music and art

19th and 20th centuries (not finalized)

Summer 2022 through summer 2024 (ages 16-18)

  • Re-read your own Daily Writings
  • Goethe, Faust
  • Shelly, Frankenstein
  • Pushkin, Yevgeny Onegin
  • Austen, Pride and Prejudice
  • Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre
  • Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights
  • Declaration of Sentiments (The Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention of 1848)
  • Douglass, Narrative of the Life
  • Melville, Moby-Dick
  • Dickens, Great Expectations or A Tale of Two Cities (or some other famous novel of his you haven’t read yet)
  • Twain, Huckleberry Finn (done, but maybe re-read)
  • Darwin, Origin of the Species and Descent of Man (selections)
  • Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party
  • Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter or House of Seven Gables
  • Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
  • Tolstoy, War and Peace
  • Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment
  • Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground
  • Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
  • Arnold, Culture and Anarchy
  • Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil and/or Genealogy of Morals
  • Conrad, Heart of Darkness
  • Re-read your own Daily Writings
  • Freud, at least one of The Interpretation of Dreams, General Introduction to Psycho-Analysis, or Civilization and its Discontents
  • Russell, The Problems of Philosophy
  • Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
  • Woolf, To the Lighthouse or A Room of One’s Own
  • Faulkner, one of his novels; I read Light in August so maybe that
  • Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
  • Kafka, Metamorphosis and The Trial
  • Camus, The Stranger
  • Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea
  • Orwell, Animal Farm and 1984 (done; might want to re-read when you’re 17 or 18)
  • Sartre, Existentialism Is a Humanism
  • Rand, The Fountainhead and/or Atlas Shrugged
  • Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
  • Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
  • An anthology of shorter poetry and drama (Wilde, Shaw, Ibsen, Chekhov, O’Neill, Sartre) from this period
  • Re-read your own Daily Writings
  • Listen to/look at, read about, and react to major works of classical music and art





Please do dive in (politely). I want your reactions!

3 responses to “Five-Year Humanities Plan”

  1. Dwayne Mayor

    Mr. Sanger,

    Pedagogically, is it better for the pupil to listen to the Great Courses lectures first and then engage with the text, or read the text and then listen to the corresponding lectures for deeper understanding of what they’ve read? Or do you have your son do them concurrently? Thanks!

    1. Generally speaking: read text, then watch. Just as with your high school or college courses.

      There are some general, introductory lectures, however, that do not depend or comment on any specific text (not in depth), which it might be good to watch first. Like, before getting too far into Homer, you might want to watch a general lecture about early Greece.

      When my son was reading Homer, Herodotus, and various plays, for example, he was going through the corresponding lectures at about the same time. So definitely you want to watch the corresponding lecture *just after* doing the reading. This requires some planning…

  2. Evelyn

    Phewf, so glad to see this. I feel like I have a solid handle on elementary, but high school is a whole different ball game. Thanks as always for sharing your wisdom Larry.

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