What do college students read? According to one survey Shades of Gray, the sado-masochistic novel, was the most widely read book outside the classroom. Another survey indicated that The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, dealing with her battle with cancer and racial grievance, was the most popular book.
But as the recent publication of the National Association of Scholars (Beach Books: 2012-2013: What Do Colleges and Universities Want Students to Read Outside Class?) suggests most common reading assignments are recent books with a political theme. Classics are rarely assigned.
The common reading program serves as substitute for a common core since the core curriculum went the way of the abacus. Colleges typically assign a book as a theme which is meant to spur discussion, “a way to initiate new students.” In a sense the common reading is an expression of values, values of the college and values the faculty thinks students should imbibe. Since the college as community has virtually disappeared, common reading assignments are thought to fill the void.
So called “social action” and “social justice” books are very much in vogue such as The Story of Stuff: How Our Obsession with Stuff is Trashing Our Planet, Our Communities and Our Health – and A Vision for Change. Books that explicitly focus on racial divisions invariably make the list of common reading assignments, albeit the classics, even those that explore grievance, tend to be ignored.
As the NAS report notes, the explanation often given for the lack of classics is that these books are to be found in the regular curriculum. However, this claim is not true. With the exception of a few institutions like Columbia and St. John’s College, books of enduring philosophical and literary value are rarely assigned. In some colleges, English majors aren’t required to read Shakespeare. In other colleges, political science majors aren’t required to read Plato.
Some scholars argue students aren’t prepared to read books with rigor. Alas, that may be true, but isn’t a college designed to take students out of their comfort zone, to challenge their intellect? If not, what is the purpose of the four year program?
The purpose behind common reading may be worthy. After all, encouraging campus-wide discussion can build community consciousness. However, common readings are not a common core and the books selected are often designed to proselytize, to glorify “green” or disparage the market economy, or emphasize racial division. Instead of raising universal questions, the common readings are usually narrow and parochial.
Higher education has become a thicket of each student charting his course of study through 300 pages of the university catalogue. Professors are increasingly focused on their own narrow area of study and refuse to assume responsibility for a common core. As a consequence, administrators can point to common readings as the community catalyst.
In fact, if common readings are required, why not assign books above students’ heads? Books that employ elegant language can serve as writing samples. And books that force genuine introspection about the human condition we share can be both uplifting and intellectually satisfying. It is not necessary to pander to students, nor is it reasonable to impose a political agenda.
If the university is a place to explore, if to educate is a reflexive verb, open the doors of Academe to a variety of viewpoints. Green trees are wonderful, but so is air conditioning in the desert. Sustainability has its virtues, but does it mean we should return to the Stone Age? Common readings should have a common purpose: to transmit the best of our culture, to open our eyes to the human experience, to learn what we don’t know and to seek the truth however illusory it may be. That is a common conversation worth having and from my point of view the only worthwhile conversation in the corridors of higher learning.