Notes from An Alien

~ Explorations In Reading, Writing & Publishing ~

Tag Archives: Canterbury Tales

What Are Folks in Institutions of “Higher Education” Reading?

I know the visitor map on this site (down, on the left, in the side-bar {if you’re not on your phone…}) shows folks coming here from all over the world; yet, still, most of my traffic is here with me in the USA.

So, for those folks from other places on our planet, I hope knowing about something in my country can translate into a valuable perspective in your country

The “top”, “most respected” institutions of “Higher Education” in the USA are called the “Ivy League“.

What that term means certainly isn’t only the ivy that may be growing on the walls of buildings at certain Eastern institutions known for “‘academic excellence’, selectivity in admissions, and a reputation for social elitism”—check out that last link—but, these places do exist and people attend them and many of them become quite influential in American politics and business.

So, there’s an article on The Washington Post that addresses What Ivy League students are reading that you aren’t.

While I urge anyone to go read the full article, I’ll excerpt a few bits of it:

“If you want an Ivy League education, you could fork over $200 grand or so and go to Cornell or Harvard for four years. Alternatively, you could save a ton of cash by simply reading the same books Ivy League students are assigned.”

Then, they reference the Open Syllabus Explorer, a database of about a decades-worth of books assigned in over a million college courses in the USA.

Another excerpt:

“There’s an ‘intellectual judgment embedded’ in the lists of books college students are required to read. The most frequently-assigned books at the nation’s universities are essentially our canon: the body of literature that society’s leaders are expected to be familiar with.”

There are a number of fascinating charts and a very cool map in the article that are worth checking out (if you have any interest in “higher education” in the USA…).

But, I want to share a few comparisons:

While, in all the schools in the database, the top three most-assigned books were The Elements of Style, The Republic, and Campbell Biology,  the top three most-assigned in the Ivy League were The Republic, The Clash of Civilizations, and The Elements of Style.

The full article has a graph with the top ten in each category

Then, they compare the top ten most-assigned English Literature books.

The top three for all the schools are Frankenstein, Canterbury Tales, and Paradise Lost.

For the Ivy League schools, they are Canterbury TalesParadise Lost, and Persuasion.

Again, the article has the top ten.

And, I should mention that The Open Syllabus Explorer shows Many more than ten in each category

Two more brief excerpts:

“The folks who built the Open Syllabus Explorer are the first to admit that their data are incomplete and likely contain a fair number of errors.”

“Still, with more than 1 million syllabi in the database, it’s currently the best approximation we have for what students are actually reading in college — and for the books that are informing the leaders of tomorrow.”

So Two questions:

If you went to an institution of “higher education” were you assigned any of these books?

And, if you’re from a country other than the USA, did this post have value for you?

>>> EDIT after publication: I tried to replicate what The Washington Post gave for the top assigned books to Ivy League students in the data base

I don’t really know how they got the results they reported

Perhaps it’s best to stick to what is presented directly in the Open Syllabus Explorer

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Revisiting, “Where Do Writers Find Their Ideas?” ~ My Tribute To One of My Commenters

One of the comments in our last post was so unique and so valuable that I’m taking the liberty of freeing it from its public presence in the comments to give it prominence in a more public presence in this post. {alliteration, anyone?}

The writer of the comment was, for many years, a teacher of English. He now is a blogger who reveals a rich and powerful command of the language through his poetry on Once written; a kind of testament in sonnets…

The only editing I’ve done is to separate the full comment into what I feel are thought-segments, add a couple commas, and change the ending of one word [may the gods of English teachers, past and present, forgive me…]. And, just as I speak in a radically different voice in this blog than I do in my books, this gentleman has a different way of writing comments than the way he composes poems ( though, I must say, there a bit of slight resemblance in the way he can put words together and have them take a mind on a stream-of-consciousness journey :-).


“There are so many levels to any given question that it seems to me to be somewhat simplistic to goad a writer into revealing where he got the material for his work, especially some particular work he has written. When it comes down to it, it certainly is evident that with many great writers, in fact some of the greatest writers of all time who were so great at what they did that the language underwent a massive change, revolution, evolution, even a transformation such that they are recognized as the “Father” of this or that stage of development of the language in which they wrote were not, at the same time, innovators when it came to content.

“Generally speaking, often it is acknowledged that with Chaucer came the swift acknowledgement from about the end of the 14th Century of the transition between the Anglo-Saxon, or “Old English” versions of the Germanic language we call English, to what became Middle English; we associate the same sort of transformation with the effects of the works of William Shakespeare.

“Chaucer is at times called the “Father of Middle English” while Shakespeare is credited more often than not with being the “Father of Modern English.” Neither were original in the content of their work as both “borrowed” their plots and characters from earlier works and historians. What made their particular works of monumental importance was the evident ability that both of them had to recreate formerly known classical narrations from earlier times but in a manner that called attention to the crafting of the dialogue and narration that was in and of itself superior to the originals from which they “stole” their material.

“How’re you going to keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paris?

“Once exposed to Chaucer (apparently, considering the almost instant positive reaction of the English to Canterbury Tales) there was no going back; once exposed to Shakespeare’s peculiar expression using his own dialect of English, not to mention his minting of some 1,800 words that are still in use today, Shakespeare’s dialect and vocabulary rapidly became the standard or model for what we refer to as “Modern English” beginning around 1550, especially as it coincided with the end of civil wars in England with the reigns of all the Tudors and most especially after the defeat of the Spanish Armada, 1588, that secured ascendency of the English Kingdom among the super powers of the entire period of the Renaissance in Europe.

“At any rate, the idea of originality so far as content is concerned is beside the point with the greatest writers of all time, the likes of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dante, Virgil, Homer, et cetera.

“These writers could get away with this because, clearly, they understood and comprehended their language in a manner that engaged their peoples in an unforgettable manner and in such a way that a kind of avalanche of change came to pass because they were in fact artists, not artisans; their respective experience in the observation of life and captured within the “tale” that each of them told, through sheer magnitude of intimate intercourse with their respective peoples and periods, matched by the advent of similar fortunes in the history of their homelands at the time of their writing, married the effect of greatness in their art, spent and given bent almost by accident because they did what they did at a time of change whose time had come.

“There is more to this, of course, than what I have cited here, but having said this, still your comments on the possibilities of original content as having everything and little to do with plagiarism are well grounded; originality in content rarely has to do with any work of art’s success.”



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