Skip to main content

You are here

10 Essential Books for Rounding Out Your College Education

round out your college education with books that explore ideas you won't learn in most classrooms

“What books should I be reading? Where do I start for a well-rounded education?”

Ever feel like you’re getting the pieces, but not the whole picture of your world and your place in it? 

If that sounds like something you’ve wondered about, then you’ve come to the right place. 

These days it is harder to get the well-rounded education you deserve. Core ideas behind the American Founding and Western civilization have been driven out of too many classrooms. But you can still learn these essential principles, if you’re hungry to do so.

Many people turn to the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) for just this reason. Eastern University seniors Emmalee Moffitt and Wayne Brown captured a sentiment I hear again and again from students when they recently said, “What drew us to ISI was its com­mitment to exploring ideas that are so often overlooked—or simply attacked—in modern academia.” 

And the question I get from students more often than any other is “What should I be reading?”  

We’ve published hundreds of books at ISI, but I recommend ten that stand out as introductions to the ideas, principles, and works that any lover of America and the West should know.

Now I want to share these books with you. They changed my perspective; they’ll probably change yours, too. 

So here are your ten essential books that will give you an invaluable introduction to Western civilization, the American experience, conservative thought, and economics:

Western Civilization

How the West Won1. How the West Won: Pernicious myths about Western civilization have gained currency in popular culture and the academy. This book is the antidote. The esteemed Baylor University scholar Rodney Stark debunks the politically correct myths about the West. In this page-turning history he takes you on a thrilling journey from ancient Greece to the present.

Student's Guide to Political Philosophy2. A Student’s Guide to Political Philosophy: This little book (just 56 pages) is packed with wisdom desperately needed in our contentious political climate. You’ll get an education in one sitting: Harvard’s Harvey Mansfield, one of America’s leading political theorists, gives you a readable guide to history’s most influential political thinkers, from Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Augustine to Hobbes, Locke, Burke, and Tocqueville.

 

America’s Founding Principles

3. The American Cause: This slim book by the great Russell Kirk—the godfather of modern American conservatism—explains the political, economic, and moral principles on which America is built. Townhall wrote that “this short, easy-to-read book should be required reading for every student.”

4. The Roots of American Order: Kirk goes deeper here in this classic work that might be called “A Tale of Five Cities”: Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, London, and Philadelphia. He shows clearly how the Founders who gathered in Philadelphia in 1776 and 1787 drew on 2,500 years of Western tradition to shape the American order.

5. We Still Hold These Truths: Matthew Spalding, an expert in American political history at Hillsdale College, takes you on an enlightening tour through the ten principles that have made America the freest and most prosperous nation in history. He also highlights the relentless attacks that undermine those foundational principles today.

Conservative Thought

6. What Is Conservatism?: If the American order emerged from 2,500 years of Western tradition, the modern American conservative movement emerged to preserve and defend the Western and American traditions of liberty. But today there’s so much confusion and conflict that it can be hard to say what conservatism means anymore. If you’re seeking answers, this classic book is for you. It features brilliant essays by some of conservatism’s greatest thinkers, including F. A. Hayek, William F. Buckley Jr., and Russell Kirk.

7. Freedom and Virtue: The Conservative/Libertarian Debate: Just look at Twitter and you’ll see that the conservative/libertarian debate is as lively today as ever. But do you ever get the feeling that people are talking past each other? Read this book to get beyond that problem. Here, leading conservative and libertarian thinkers actually engage one another’s arguments. As World magazine said in its review, “The rare sight of both sides critiquing each other can be eye-opening.”

8. The Quest for Community: With busy schedules, always-beckoning social media, and job and school opportunities that take us far away from home, it’s harder than ever to lay down roots in our communities. Oh well, that’s life, right? Well, take another look at what you’re losing—what we’re all losing. It’s not just that we’re becoming atomized individuals, with looser and looser ties to family, neighborhood, church, and so forth. This classic book by Robert Nisbet shows you the key overlooked aspect of community: if you care about limiting government power, you can’t champion individualism alone.

Economics

9. A Student’s Guide to Economics: In this vital little guide, economics is anything but a “dismal science.” And the truth is, you need to understand economic basics, because politicians and pundits throw out so much misinformation. So dig in here. In just 60 pages you’ll learn the history of economic thought. You’ll also learn why the market economy is responsible for America’s unprecedented prosperity. That’s no small matter at a time when polls shows that young Americans actually prefer socialism to capitalism.

10. A Humane Economy: Want to understand how economics really works? You can’t do much better than this masterpiece by the great economist Wilhelm Röpke. As the Wall Street Journal notes, reading A Humane Economy is like being in “a seminar on integral freedom conducted by a professor of uncommon brilliance.” In a new introduction, the Acton Institute’s Samuel Gregg writes that A Humane Economy challenges “those who question the market economy’s moral and economic benefits.” A timely message.

So there you have it: your ten essential books for a broad education in the Western tradition, America’s founding principles, conservative thought, and free-market economics. 

Of course, this is just a starter kit. You can (and should!) go deeper in your reading—and ISI has plenty of other resources for you there. But when you read these books—accessible, engaging works written by leading thinkers—you’ll get an excellent grounding in foundational ideas.

Happy reading!


Jed Donahue is editor in chief of ISI Books.


Complement with 5 books you need to read this summer and Russell Kirk on the purpose of the liberal arts.

ARTICLE SEARCH

Share this article

Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required
Select the emails you want to receive: