Tag Archives: John Stuart Mill

Books for Book Virgins and Book-o-phobes

The annual controversy over books assigned to freshmen as summer reading is upon us.  Spoiler alerts.  Odysseus makes it home. Hamlet dies. The Whale wins.

Oh, not those books.  We are talking more about White Girls (by Hilton Als, 2013) and Purple Hibiscus (by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 2003).  White Girls, as one reviewer puts it, is “an inquiry into otherness” by a writer for the New Yorker, who is a black male.  Purple Hibiscus is a novel by a Nigerian woman that depicts the travails of fifteen-year-old girl who has to cope with her violent and cruel, fanatically Christian father.

In 2014, the topmost assigned book (17 out of 341 colleges that have such programs) was Wes Moore’s account of a convicted murderer who shares his name and his beginning as a fatherless black child in Baltimore, The Other Wes Moore (2010).  Second on the list (eight colleges) was Dave Eggers’ novel about a woman who works for a privacy-destroying internet company, The Circle (2013), and third was Rebecca Skloot’s account of the poor black woman whose cervical cancer cells were the first human cell line to be kept growing in a lab,  The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks(2010).  In 2015, according to Inside Higher Ed, it appears that Bryan Stevenson’s memoir of his efforts to exonerate wrongly convicted prisoners, Just Mercy (2014) will be the winner.

Books Younger Than Their Readers

For the last six years, the National Association of Scholars has been assiduously tracking all the books selected by all the colleges that do this sort of thing.  We call them “beach books,” but the usual term is “common readings.”  NAS executive director Ashley Thorne has pretty much single handedly turned a minor campus phenomenon into a subject of widespread controversy—the subject of annual conferences, legislative hearings, and mass media attention.  The latest reverberation was a report on July 23 on NPR.

This year 93 percent of the books assigned to “first-years” (the new PC term for freshmen) are younger than the students who are asked to read them.  There are many threads to the beach books story, but the extreme youth of most of the books is the most revealing.  Why so much emphasis on hot-from-the-presses titles?

We’ve heard three answers. First, the program coordinators insist that the best way to engage students is to bring the author to campus to speak.  That makes for a nice income stream for some contemporary writers, and too bad for Mark Twain.  He had his chance.

Second, the coordinators tell us they have to meet the students where they are. Many are “book virgins” who reach college never having read any book cover to cover.  Such students need to be coaxed by assigning them a book that is “right now.”

And third, the coordinators are convinced that the past is over and done with anyway and, regardless of what the students think, the focus should be on contemporary social issues.

This last one concerns me most, but the other two are lame as well.  College students should get used to reading books by dead people.  If you can’t read Edith Wharton or Mary Wollenstonecraft without her in the room, hire an actor.  As for book virgins and book-o-phobic first years, why not get them started on the real thing?  If Hemingway is too hard, try Aesop’s Fables.  If Aesop’s talking animals are above their level, try Mother Goose.  Am I exaggerating how bereft of literary foundations these students are?  I hope so.

No Dead Writers, Please

But the third point—that education all by itself requires that the beach books be molded from the freshest, most up-to-date progressive sand—deserves a little more attention and, let’s say, a lot more opprobrium.  Among the responses to the recent NPR report on summer readings came this crystalline summation from an undergraduate named Kai:

Good literature teaches students about our world now, about the challenges our society faces and will continue to face. Climate change, inequity, and—this is the big one—discrimination (especially racial). Real world issues start to be acknowledged when college kids read about them in books like “A Long Way Gone,” “White Girls,” or “The New Jim Crow.” And that’s why college reading programs SHOULD NOT contain the classics. College reading should be controversial, inspiring, provocative contemporary literature.

Kai is full of youthful arrogance.  He’s read someone named “Vergil” in the original.  But he sees the need to get beyond “institutionalized, oppressive traditions.”  The literature that “has shaped the predominant modes of interaction in western civilization” may be “fun to read—indulgent, even,” but it is time to move on.

I don’t mean to make too much fun of poor Kai.  He is clearly an eager student who has diligently taken in the premises of his college and enthusiastically made them his own.  But his is the voice of someone imprisoned in “now,” for whom “good literature” is writing by contemporary social activists.  He is oblivious to the need to learn about the past and the deep ways in which great literature from previous eras bears on the present.

We all, of course, live in the present and need to pay attention to its particular demands, which include listening to people prose on about “climate change” as earlier generations prosed on about other supposed menaces.  Inequity and discrimination?  Kai might be on firmer ground if he knew more history and understood how much inequity and discrimination are endemic to the human condition.  Virgil, for example, has something to say on the topic of oppression.

Devaluing the Past

The saturation of college students in what might be called present-tense books should worry us.  Higher education cannot of course erase the past but it can radically devalue it.  Introducing students to college-level reading by feeding them candy bars of social outrage is about the poorest way I can imagine to develop their taste for serious ideas expressed with power, imagination, and intelligence.

The problem is not new.  We noticed this extreme focus on contemporary books in our first study of common readings in 2010, when we found the “vast majority” of assigned books in the 290 colleges we studied to have been published in the preceding decade.  But back then, we did find ten colleges (3.4 percent of the total) that had reached back further.  Thoreau’s Walden made an appearance, as did Marx’s Communist Manifesto, Dashiell Hammett’s Maltese Falcon, and Alan Paton’s Cry, The Beloved Country.  More daringly, two colleges had assigned Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

We have redone and expanded the study each year since then.  The list of books that are assigned changes dramatically from year to year—as naturally it would if the college is set on chasing the winds of ideological fashion.  But what doesn’t change is the relentless focus on books that are in their dewy youth.  In 2010, it was the world of Steve Lopez’s account of a skid-row violinist, The Soloist (2008); Greg Mortenson’s account of his building schools for girls in Pakistan, Three Cups of Tea (2007); and Sonia Nazario’s account of a child from Central America illegally slipping in the United States, Enrique’s Journey (2006).

The Soloist is now off playing by himself in a different skid row.  Mortenson’s cup ran dry when he was exposed as a fraud; those Pakistani girls’ schools were made up.  Enrique went underground for a while but has resurfaced in view of current illegal immigration.

The relative youth of a book is no knock against it as a book, but it is a knock against making it the one (and usually only) book that a class of college students will read together.  I’ve elsewhere made my own suggestions for better books for the first-year beach babies.  I’m moderate about this.  If Don Quixote is too long and Crime and Punishment too dark, try The Right Stuff or Life on the Mississippi, or perhaps better yet, John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty.

This article was originally published on the National Association of Scholars site.

‘Being Offended Is Not a Plus for You’

Excerpts from Ian McEwan’s commencement speech at Dickinson College, May 17, 2015

I would like to share a few thoughts with you about free speech. Let’s begin on a positive note: there is likely more free speech, free thought, free enquiry on earth now than at any previous moment in recorded history (even taking into account the golden age of the so-called ‘pagan’ philosophers). And you’ve come of age in a country where the enshrinement of free speech in the First Amendment is not an empty phrase, as it is in many constitutions, but a living reality.

But free speech was, is and always will be, under attack – from the political right, the left, the center. It will come from under your feet, from the extremes of religion as well as from unreligious ideologies. It’s never convenient, especially for entrenched power, to have a lot of free speech flying around….

It’s worth remembering this: freedom of expression sustains all the other freedoms we enjoy. Without free speech, democracy is a sham. Every freedom we possess or wish to possess (of habeas corpus and due process, of universal franchise and of assembly, union representation, sexual equality, of sexual preference, of the rights of children, of animals – the list goes on) has had to be freely thought and talked and written into existence.

No single individual can generate these rights alone. The process is cumulative. It was a historical context of relative freedom of speech that made possible the work of those who were determined to extend that liberty. John Milton, Tom Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Stuart Mill, Oliver Wendell Holmes – the roll call is long and honorable – and that is why an education in the liberal arts is so vital to the culture you are about to contribute to.

Take a long journey from these shores as I’m sure many of you will, and you will find the condition of free expression to be desperate. Across almost the entire Middle East, free thought can bring punishment or death, from governments or from street mobs or motivated individuals. The same is true in Bangladesh, Pakistan, across great swathes of Africa. These past years the public space for free thought in Russia has been shrinking. In China, state monitoring of free expression is on an industrial scale. To censor daily the internet alone, the Chinese government employs as many as fifty thousand bureaucrats – a level of thought repression unprecedented in human history.

Paradoxically, it’s all the more important to be vigilant for free expression wherever it flourishes. And nowhere has it been more jealously guarded than under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Which is why it has been so puzzling lately, when we saw scores of American writers publicly disassociating themselves from a PEN gala to honor the murdered journalists of the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo. American PEN exists to defend and promote free speech. What a disappointment that so many American authors could not stand with courageous fellow writers and artists at a time of tragedy. The magazine has been scathing about racism. It’s also scathing about organized religion and politicians and it might not be to your taste – but that’s when you should remember your Voltaire.

Hebdo’s offices were fire-bombed in 2011, and the journalists kept going. They received constant death threats – and they kept going. In January nine colleagues were murdered, gunned down, in their office – the editorial staff kept going and within days they had produced an edition whose cover forgave their attackers. Tout est pardonne, all is forgiven. All this, when in the U.S. and U.K. one threatening phone call can be enough to stop a major publishing house in its tracks.

The attack on Charlie Hebdo came from religious fanatics whose allegiances became clear when one of the accomplices made her way from France, through Turkey to ISIS in Syria. Remember, this is a form of fanaticism whose victims, across Africa and the Middle East, are mostly Muslims – Muslim gays and feminists, Muslim reformists, bloggers, human rights activists, dissidents, apostates, novelists, and ordinary citizens, including children, murdered in or kidnapped from their schools….

But note the end of the Hebdo affair: the gala went ahead, the surviving journalists received a thunderous and prolonged standing ovation from American PEN.

Timothy Garton Ash reminds us in a new book on free speech that “The U.S. Supreme Court has described academic freedom as a ‘special concern of the First Amendment.'” Worrying too, then, is the case of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an ex-Muslim, highly critical of Islam, too critical for some. As a victim herself, she has campaigned against female genital mutilation. She has campaigned for the rights of Muslim women. In a recent book she has argued that for Islam to live more at ease in the modern world it needs to rethink its attitudes to homosexuality, to the interpretation of the Koran as the literal word of God, to blasphemy, to punishing severely those who want to leave the religion.

Contrary to what some have suggested, such arguments are neither racist nor driven by hatred. But she has received death threats. Crucially, on many American campuses she is not welcomed, and, notoriously, Brandeis withdrew its offer of an honorary degree. Islam is worthy of respect, as indeed is atheism. We want respect flowing in all directions. But religion and atheism, and all thought systems, all grand claims to truth, must be open to criticism, satire, even, sometimes, mockery. Surely, we have not forgotten the lessons of the Salman Rushdie affair.

Campus intolerance of inconvenient speakers is hardly new. Back in the sixties my own university blocked a psychologist for promoting the idea of a hereditable component to intelligence. In the seventies, the great American biologist E.O. Wilson was drowned out for suggesting a genetic element in human social behavior. As I remember, both men were called fascists. The ideas of these men did not fit prevailing ideologies, but their views are unexceptionable today.

More broadly – the internet has, of course, provided extraordinary possibilities for free speech. At the same time, it has taken us onto some difficult and unexpected terrain. It has led to the slow decline of local newspapers, and so removed a skeptical and knowledgeable voice from local politics. Privacy is an essential element of free expression; the Snowden files have revealed an extraordinary and unnecessary level of email surveillance by government agencies.

Another essential element of free expression is access to information; the internet has concentrated huge power over that access into the hands of private companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter. We need to be careful that such power is not abused. Large pharmaceutical companies have been known to withhold research information vital to the public interest. On another scale, the death of young black men in police custody could be framed as the ultimate sanction against free expression. As indeed is poverty and poor educational resources….

But it can be a little too easy sometimes to dismiss arguments you don’t like as ‘hate speech’ or to complain that this or that speaker makes you feel ‘disrespected.’ Being offended is not to be confused with a state of grace; it’s the occasional price we all pay for living in an open society. Being robust is no bad thing. Either engage, with arguments – not with banishments and certainly not with guns – or, as an American Muslim teacher said recently at Friday prayers, ignore the entire matter.

In making your mind up on these issues, I hope you’ll remember your time at Dickinson and the novels you may have read here. It would prompt you, I hope, in the direction of mental freedom. The novel as a literary form was born out of the Enlightenment, out of curiosity about and respect for the individual. Its traditions impel it towards pluralism, openness, a sympathetic desire to inhabit the minds of others. There is no man, woman or child, on earth whose mind the novel cannot reconstruct. Totalitarian systems are right with regard to their narrow interests when they lock up novelists. The novel is, or can be, the ultimate expression of free speech.

I hope you’ll use your fine liberal education to preserve for future generations the beautiful and precious but also awkward, sometimes inconvenient and even offensive culture of freedom of expression we have. Take with you these celebrated words of George Washington: “If the freedom of speech is taken away then, dumb and silent, we may be led like sheep to the slaughter, “We may be certain that Dickinson has not prepared you to be sheep.” Good luck 2015 graduates in whatever you choose to do in life.