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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.

Summer Reading for Freshmen—Arrggh!

What books do colleges and universities ask incoming freshmen to read over the summer? “Beach Books,” a study by the National Association of Scholars, has an answer: it turned up 180 books at 290 institutions and concluded that the book choices are unchallenging, heavily pitched to themes of alienation and oppression, and overwhelmingly reflect liberal themes and the sensibilities of the academic left.
The selections are mostly books published in the last decade and “generally pitched at an intellectual level well below what should be expected of college freshmen…. It is hard to find anything on the list that poses even a modest intellectual challenge to the average reader.” The chosen books tend to be “short, caffeinated and emotional” and seem grounded on the premises of Oprah’s Book Club.
Many colleges say the selections are intended to start conversations and engage new students in intellectual reflection. But assignments based on this goal seem to betray some unstated anxieties, among them that “students are so lacking in shared intellectual experience as to have little to talk about with one another—or little beyond television, music and sports.” The “present-ism” of the selections, the report concludes, reflects an underestimation of the students’ ability to discover connections between the past and the contemporary world. Colleges ought to push students toward making such connections rather than assume that students won’t get it.”
The report wonders whether the colleges are aware of the political slant and triviality of the books pushed on freshmen. It tentatively concludes: “Our guess is that they do not.” Sixty of the 290 colleges selected books in what the report calls the multiculturalism/immigration/racism category. Other totals are environmentalism/animal rights/food (36 colleges), the Islamic world (27), new age/spiritual philosophy (25) and holocaust/genocide/war/disaster (25). On the whole, the books offer a distinctly disaffected view of American society and Western civilization. On the left-right spectrum the reports says that 70% of the books lean liberal, 28% neutral and 2% conservative.

Mandatory Summer Reading (Yawn)

It’s July, and there’s one safe bet to be made about the 2.8 million or so new high school graduates who will be entering college as freshmen in just six or seven weeks: Few of them are likely to have even started reading the “one book” that the adminstrators at their chosen college have likely assigned them as summer reading. The freshman book programs, sometimes called “one book, one college” or “common reading,” mostly date from the mid-1990s, and every year, it seems, more colleges and universities decide to require their incoming freshmen to read a novel or non-fiction work to be discussed in small groups during orientation week, which in many cases also features a campus visit by the book’s author. The idea is to introduce 18-year-olds to college-level intellectual life before the fall semester officially begins and also to foster a sense of campus community based upon shared intellectual experiences.

As one might suspect on today’s highly politicized campuses, days, the vast majority of freshman summer reading assignments have reflected not so much a commitment to fostering freshmen’s intellectual growth—via, say, a literary classic or a seminal philosophical treatise such as Plato’s Republic—as an effort to immerse them in the political cause du jour for liberal academics. Such recently published and distinctly left-leaning polemical works as Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (2001), Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal (2001), and most recently, Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature and Climate Change (2006), former New York Times reporter Elizabeth Kolbert’s gloom-and-doom treatise on global warming, are current staples of freshman summer programs. Such book choices have sparked off-campus political controversy—as when the public University of North Carolina’s Chapel Hill campus in 2003 required its freshmen to read Nickel and Dimed, criticized for its superficial reporting (Ehrenreich typically spent a few weeks at a low-wage job, then walked out in a huff) and its predictably snarky take on capitalism in general and on Wal-Mart and other employers of the working poor in particular. What is most interesting, though, is the on-campus reaction of many freshmen to their summer reading assignments. It turns out that many of them aren’t so susceptible to politically correct brainwashing as their college professors and administrators might think, and their responses to the more overtly politicized assignments have ranged from indifference to outright hostility.

Continue reading Mandatory Summer Reading (Yawn)

The Unseriousness of Freshman Summer Reading

Many college freshmen face their first academic task before they even set foot in a classroom – the freshman summer reading project. Many colleges now select a single volume for all incoming freshmen to read, and construct discussion groups and attendant orientation activities around the book. Temple University’s explanation of its program is fairly representative: “the goals of the project are to provide a common intellectual experience for entering students” and to “bring students, faculty and members of the Temple community together for discussion and debate.” At a time when core programs and required courses grow increasingly infrequent, it is surprising to find such strong language about “common intellectual experience” from universities. This all sounds encouraging, right? Perhaps, until you find out what they’re reading.

An overwhelming favorite of these reading programs is Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed – it’s a perennial from Baruch to Slippery Rock to UNC Chapel Hill. Nickel and Dimed appears a perfect class-conscious selection to expand students’ minds. Poverty is a running theme in recent years’ assignments, from Case Western Reserve’s The Working Poor: Invisible In America to One Nation Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All at Washington University to a variety of Kozol readings across the nation’s campuses. These assignments have not always been received happily – the 2003 Nickel and Dimed assignment at UNC Chapel Hill inspired a protest coalition, arguing that the book was an inappropriate assignment, as a radical and left-inclined critique of the American economy.

Continue reading The Unseriousness of Freshman Summer Reading