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Summer Reading for Freshmen: Unchallenging, Mediocre

“Beach Books 2014-2016,” released yesterday by the National Association of Scholars (NAS), is a study of mostly summer reading assigned by colleges and universities to their incoming freshman.

NAS reports:

Our study of common readings during the academic years 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 covers 377 assignments at 366 colleges and universities for the first year and 361 assignments at 350 colleges and universities for the second year. Our data includes common readings for every college and university we could find—including readings for honor colleges, but not for sub-units of the university such as departments of education. We included books assigned as summer readings, whether to freshmen or to all students.

Although in the past we did not include books tied to readings assigned in a core curriculum, this year we have included Columbia University’s assignment of an English translation of the first six books of Homer’s The Iliad to its incoming undergraduate class, since it is specifically designated as a summer reading.68 Columbia’s decision does make The Iliad the common reading for its incoming class, and this wonderful effect should not be removed from our charts simply because it is not formally labeled as a Common Reading. We hope that Columbia’s choice will prove a model to its peers.

Download the report (pdf): Beach Books 2014-2016: What Do Colleges and Universities Want Students to Read Outside Class?

The findings, in brief, follow.

College common reading programs are:

Meant to Build Community. Colleges see their common readings more as exercises in community-building than as means to prepare students for academic life.

Civically Engaged: Common readings are overwhelmingly chosen to foster civic engagement; they scarcely mention the complementary and equally valuable virtues of the disengaged life of the mind. They give no sense of why or how college differs from the world outside, and why those differences are valuable.

Recent: More than half of common reading assignments (58% in 2014, 60% in 2015) were published between 2010 and the present. Only 12 assignments out of 738 (1.6%) were published before 1900, and another 5 (0.7%) between 1900 and 1945.

Nonfiction: 71% of assignments in 2014 and 75% of assignments in 2015 were memoirs, biographies, essays, and other non-fiction.

Dominated by mediocre new books: Most common readings are recent, trendy, and intellectually unchallenging.

A Narrow, Predictable Genre: The common reading genre is parochial, contemporary, commercial, optimistic, juvenile, and obsessed with suffering.

Almost No Classics: Only a scattering of colleges assigned works that could be considered classics. With few exceptions, the hundreds of common reading programs across the country ignored books of lasting merit.

No Modern Classics: Even in confining themselves to living authors, common reading programs neglect some of the best ones, such as Martin Amis, Wendell Berry, J. M. Coetzee, Annie Dillard, Alice Munro, V. S. Naipaul, Philip Roth, Wole Soyinka, and Tom Wolfe.

Author Speaking: In 2014, 53% of colleges with common reading programs hosted personal appearances by the authors, and in 2015, 54% of colleges with common reading programs had author appearances.

Nothing Foreign: Classics in translation were nearly absent—and so was anything modern in translation. Even common readings about foreigners generally were written in English, not translated from a foreign language.

Predominantly Progressive. The assigned books frequently emphasize progressive political themes—illegal immigrants contribute positively to America, the natural environment must be saved immediately—and almost never possess subject matter disfavored by progressives.

The desire to appeal to incoming students who have rarely if ever read an adult book on their own also leads selection committees to choose low-grade “accessible” works. Common reading programs aim to familiarize new students with how college students think, read, discuss, and write. They are meant to establish academic standards—and to establish a sense of community among students, both with other students and with the faculty. How well they do either of these things is open to question. Common reading programs are also meant to inculcate institutional identity and institutional goals—under which cover progressive tenets such as diversity and sustainability often creep in.

Books are selected to appeal to as broad an audience as possible, both to satisfy the varieties of student taste and disciplinary interest and so as to get as broad an institutional “buy-in” as possible from the administration and the faculty. The basic rationale, however, is that if students can be brought to care enough about a book to read it, and even think it’s interesting enough to talk about with their friends, they might also care enough about college to make a real go at their education.

Common reading programs state their goals with words that make a leftward skew in the book selections just about a sure thing. Keywords telegraph the content of those goals: all save academic expectations are the euphemistic jargon of the left.

For instance, Salem State University (Massachusetts) desires “thoughtful discussion of ideas”; in 2015, it chose Joshua Davis’ soft sell for amnestying illegal immigrants, Spare Parts: Four Undocumented Teenagers, One Ugly Robot, and the Battle for the American Dream (2014).  These basic programmatic goals have been elaborated by a constellation of other words and phrases that largely partakes of progressive jargon as well: active citizenship, awareness, biodiversity, civic engagement, community service, critical thinking, diversity, engaged, equity, ethics, inclusion, injustice, intercultural understanding, local talent, meaningful, multiple disciplinary application, perspectives, powerful, readability, relevant, responsibility, sensitivity, shared experience, social justice, social responsibility, timely, and tolerance.

(Critical thinking, ethics, and tolerance are not monopolies of any political party, and they should be part of a college education. What we note and critique here is the use of this hijacked vocabulary to forward progressive political projects.)

These programmatic keywords reinforce other skews. The calls for civic engagement, community service, relevance, and responsibility filter out books concerned with the disinterested life of the mind. The demand for a reading that is about something in the world leads to endless memoirs and works of popular nonfiction concerned with life beyond the college walls. Even a memoir such as Liz Murray’s Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey from Homeless to Harvard, whose point is the value of going to college, is entirely about the struggle to get to Harvard, and not the character of her life once she has arrived.

Common reading choices continue to reflect the issues of the day. The sharp rise of selections on African American themes in 2015-16 coincides with the Ferguson protests and the ensuing Black Lives Matter campaign; and it is doubtful that, absent Ferguson, Augustana College (Illinois), Hampshire College (Massachusetts), and Norfolk State University (Virginia) all would have decided in 2015 to assign James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time.

The campaign to amnesty illegal immigrants likewise has produced a sharp uptick of books on themes of immigration, particularly illegal immigration. The popularity of Sonia Nazario’s Enrique’s Journey: The Story of a Boy’s Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite with His Mother (6 selections in 201415 and 5 in 2015-16) evidently derives from this campaign. The rise of the transgender movement, with its insistence on contingent sexuality, probably inspired a faint echo in Bluffton University’s (Ohio) choice of Marge Piercy’s He, She, and It, a 1991 novel on a woman who falls in love with a cyborg.

The common readings are homogeneous and bland. The desire to appeal to incoming students who have rarely if ever read an adult book on their own also leads selection committees to choose low-grade “accessible” works that are presumed to appeal to “book virgins.” Since common reading programs are generally either voluntary or mandatory without an enforcement mechanism, such “book virgins” have to be wooed with simple, unchallenging works.

A significant number of books are chosen by the academy’s diversity offices. The sustainability programs are not yet institutional sponsors of common readings, but their influence can be seen in the uptick of sustainability themes for common reading programs. The University

of Tennessee’s student-led fossil fuel divestment campaign began in January 2013,9 but surged in popularity after incoming students read the 201314 common reading, Bill McKibben’s Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, and heard McKibben speak on campus.10

Wes Moore’s The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates (2010) is by far the most frequently assigned book of the last two years, with 17 assignments in 2014-15 and 16 in 2015-16. This is a memoir of the contrasting fates of two Wes Moores— both born African American and poor in Baltimore, one grew up to be a Rhodes Scholar, decorated veteran, White House Fellow, and business leader, while the other ended up a convicted murderer serving a life sentence.

The most common college selections were in these categories: civil rights/racism/slavery, crime and punishment, drugs and poverty, family dysfunction and immigration.

Campus Libertarianism up, Civic Commitment Down

One of the most mentioned findings in the annual UCLA survey of college freshmen is a decided trend toward more “liberal” political attitudes. The survey shows increased support for same-sex marriage (supported by 71.3% of students, representing a 6.4% increase since 2009); for a pro-choice position on abortion; for the legalization of marijuana; and a corresponding decrease in opposition to provision of public services to undocumented immigrants. One finding that seems at odds with the overall trend is support for national health care, which dropped nearly a point since 2010, and fourteen points since 2007.

As Mark Bauerlein rightly pointed out, the trends point not in a “liberal” direction, but rather one that is “libertarian,” with a strong stress upon being “individualists.” If there is one overwhelming conclusion that one can draw from this survey, today’s students are individualistic. As an article about the survey expressed, their dominant perspective is to “Live and Let Live (and Study).”

The study is striking for what it does not ask: while it asks about hot-button social issues ranging from same-sex marriage to abortion, it does not ask students very much about their views on the economy–something one would think in our current climate would be interesting to know (the survey claims that its findings should inform how issues should be framed in the upcoming Presidential election. If that is the case, why the avoidance of economic questions?).

My own more modest campus “survey” suggests that students are trending libertarian (what many would call “conservative”) in the economic sphere as well. In one class I teach at Georgetown, I assign students a short paper asking them to provide a “political autobiography.” I have been struck over the past several years at the increasing number of students who self-describe as “socially liberal and economically conservative.” Their political lexicon is fairly impoverished (doubtless with thanks to our political media), but what they in fact disclose is a growing embrace of a consistent ethic of libertarianism. If we take their fading support of national health care as a proxy for their view about government interference in the economy, then we can indeed conclude that today’s students demonstrate an overall disposition toward “live and let live,” in both the social and economic realms.

Toleration, Diversity and Me

This conclusion, I would submit, ought to be a source of deep concern for those who care about the future of the American polity.

The overarching emphasis in the highest echelons of society–among our “elites,” and especially those working at our public schools and universities, as well as in the media–has been upon the need for “toleration” and “diversity.” The underlying belief informing this widespread view is that a high level of toleration toward others will result in a decrease in social conflict, the cessation of the mistreatment of minorities and outsiders, and a more peaceful and hence prosperous society. This message has clearly been internalized by today’s students: among the worst possible sins one can commit is to be a “Hater”–or, in their parlance, to “H8.” To render judgments or critical views toward lifestyle decisions is to engage in an unacceptable form of prejudice; people should be allowed to behave in whatever way they wish, so long as no one is physically harmed (though, it should be noted, self-destructive behaviors such as smoking are now severely frowned upon–only 2% of the surveyed population today acknowledges being a smoker). In what possible way could one be disquieted by this seemingly praiseworthy disposition of toleration and acceptance of diversity?

What the data also demonstrates is a keen and intense emphasis on the self. Today’s students simultaneously urge toleration toward others, but also expect to be left alone. Their overarching emphasis upon individual achievement–particularly in the area of career advancement–suggests that the message of “toleration” and “diversity” seamlessly co-exists with a self-centered focus on material success and personal lifestyle autonomy. At risk is a cultivated belief in civic membership, a sense of shared fate and even forms of self-sacrifice.

One telling aspect of the survey has, to my knowledge, received no attention: while 72.3% state that the “chief benefit of college is to increase one’s earning power,” only 2% of current college graduates are enrolled in an ROTC or other military program. While likely career choices are fragmented among many possible choices (with the largest numbers of responses clustering around the choices of engineer, physician and business, together totaling 28%), only 1.5% responded that they foresaw a military career; 0.9% intended to enter government or public policy; and .1% stated an intention to become a member of the clergy. As many respondents indicated a likely future of unemployment (1.5%) as those willing to serve in the military!

Increasing Earning Power

Contemporary liberals who significantly shape the views of today’s young (especially through the media – 50% of respondents indicated watching television more than 3 hours a day) believe that they are ushering in a future of toleration and “laissez-faire.” However, this attitude in fact buttresses the other overwhelming finding of the survey: that students today are “in it” for themselves. Their view of college is already determined before they enroll: the purpose of college is to increase their earning power. They are not in college to be liberally educated or to understand the “meaning of life.” They are not there to prepare for a life of responsible citizenship, parenthood and neighborliness. They are “capitalist tools,” people whose lives are dominated by professional ambition and bottom-line accounting.

Several disquieting questions should come to mind: what kinds of citizens will these people grow up to be? What kinds of parents and what kinds of neighbors? They will likely be willing to leave other people alone–but will they care about others? Will they love? Will they serve? Will they sacrifice? According Charles Murray in his recent book Coming Apart, it is the upper classes (which will be composed of the students in this survey) that have largely abandoned any idea of trusteeship and moral and civic responsibility toward those who have not won the meritocratic sweepstakes. The survey suggests that this divide will only deepen in coming years.

I fear that we are not ushering in a utopia of toleration and sensitivity, but one of indifference and self-absorption. Today’s young people have deeply absorbed the lessons that have been taught them by their elders. Do we truly think a civilization can persist when it teaches its young that the most important thing in life is indifference toward others and that the means to happiness is earning the most money?