I read William J. Bennett’s Book of Virtues to my children once. Well, by “once,” I mean for a year and a half, but it was worth it. As we read, I was intrigued by how much I was learning: I started the project to help my children develop character with good literature, but I had no idea that this collection could form the rudiments of a decent liberal education.
Bennett’s anthology presents an assortment of world literature that ranges deep and wide, giving us the greatest hits of history better than any of the college texts with which I’ve worked, and it plainly shows how morally didactic the classics are. I read something that referred to this book as an arrogant attempt to indoctrinate people with right-wing beliefs. Really? Where does Bennett twist a text to mean anything other than that for which it was clearly intended? Which of the virtues in here are peculiar to conservatives? Honesty? Patriotism? Faith? (Now, now, no cheap shots. Although, I would defy any socialist liberal to write a similar book that made such extensive use of classics to promote, say, the social and governmental experiments that their philosophy favors.)
As I read The Book of Virtues, I saw so many wonderful works that I’d never read or even heard of before (The Athenian Oath, the story of Cincinnatus, the funeral oration of Pericles, Roosevelt’s speech on “The Strenuous Life,” etc.) that painted such a glorious picture of our civilizational heritage, that I wanted to organize them into a timeline for use in instructing my children (I had also just read The Well-Trained Mind and loved it, hence my list’s preponderance of important texts). Bennett’s thematic chapters were appropriate for his purpose, but I wanted a way to use the text for a more academic setting.
As I made a list putting my favorite items in chronological order, I rounded it out with other historical events I deemed worthy for my children to study, including major historical events narrated in the scriptures. I also added some family events, such as the birthdays of my wife and I, and our children, though I deleted those from the copy below. For your entertainment and edification, here it is. (If I ever have a ton of time to kill, I’d reformat this with links to all these texts online.) References to page numbers in italics are to Bennett’s Book of Virtues; underlined references are to scripture:
5,000,000,000 BC Earth formed Moses 2, Abraham 4
64,000,000 BC Dinosaurs extinct
9000 BC Ice Age ends
2925 BC Egypt—Menes, first king of the 1st Egyptian Dynasty, Memphis
2570 BC Egypt—Great Pyramid of Cheops
2500 BC Egypt—Sphinx built to guard Great Pyramid
2300 BC Ur—Abraham Genesis 11-25, Book of Abraham
2000 BC Sumeria—Epic of Gilgamesh, the world’s oldest story
1780 BC Babylonian text, Code of Hammurabi, world’s first written law
1500 BC England—Stonehenge completed after hundreds of years of building and use
1410 BC Egypt—Joseph interprets dreams (for Pharaoh Thutmose IV?) Genesis 40-41
1325 BC Egypt—Tutankhamen (King Tut)
1290-1224 BC Egypt—Ramses II, see Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” page 68.