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.

The most surprising response came from entering freshmen at Yale University in the fall of 2007, who were required to spend part of their summer reading three chapters of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: A Psychologist Explains the Development of Racial Identity (1999) by Beverly Daniel Tatum, president of the historically black Spelman College in Atlanta. It was Yale’s first—and as it turned out, last—experiment with the one-book philosophy of freshman orientation. The university’s aims in assigning Tatum’s book were unabashedly indoctrinatory: to counteract some ethnic jokes (actually directed at Asian students and their studious ways, not blacks) that had appeared in student humor publications during the 2006-2007 academic year. In order to make sure the students did the reading, Yale mailed out a free copy of the book to every member of the class of 2011. Freshman dean George Levesque predicted that it would “not take long” for the neophyte Blues to “realize that racism inevitably exists at Yale.”

Tatum, invited to the Yale campus to deliver the freshman keynote address on Sept. 4, 2007, did not disappoint. In vivid Jeremiah Wright-style rhetoric, she declared, according to a summary by a Yale Daily News reporter, “Racism is a system of advantage based on race, a combination of racial prejudice and social power. Because they benefit from this arrangement, almost all white Americans—but not their black peers—can fairly be called racist.” Many members of Tatum’s audience were taken aback. “The idea that all white people are racist is probably a little drastic,” one freshman who had attended the speech told the Yale Daily News. Levesque did not respond to my e-mail requesting a comment on Tatum’s speech, but Yale, at least for this fall’s entering class of 2012, has dropped the idea of a mandatory freshman book. “We’re going to do something different this fall.” a Yale spokesman explained in a telephone interview.

Rice University similarly experienced a wave of freshman indifference when it decided to launch its own first-ever one-book program last fall with Kolbert’s Field Notes From a Catastrophe. Like Yale, Rice paid for the copies of the book—800 in all—that it mailed out to every incoming freshman. Rice also sponsored a year-long series of campus events centered around Kolbert’s global-warming jeremiad: an environmental film series, a “CO2 forum and sustainability fair,” lunch with an anti-coal plant activist, a visit from BioTour, the vegetable oil-powered school bus, and countless green-themed discussion groups and lectures.

The upshot: Many Rice freshmen either resented or simply ignored most of the carbon-cutting events. According to the student newspaper, The Rice Thresher, several first-year students complained that they were forced to discuss Field Notes From a Catastrophe during an orientation-week dinner. Even Rice’s “director of sustainability” (that’s a trendy new campus job title), Richard Johnson, conceded that the university’s relentless drumbeat of climate-change alarmism had turned off more students than it galvanized to activism. “We lost the listener,” he wrote on his blog Greening the Campus: Inside the World of the Campus Sustainability Professional. “No matter how credentialed or impressive or articulate the expert, there are only so many times and in so many different ways that the ordinary college student is going to want to be told that their future is in jeopardy because of global climate change,” Johnson noted. For this coming academic year, Rice has decided on a lower-key, if equally high-minded, theme for its entering freshmen to ponder: “global citizenship.” The assigned summer book for the class of 2008 is Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin’s Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace…One School at a Time (2007), an account of Mortenson’s efforts to set up schools in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The Yale and Rice experiences with freshman books last fall reflect a phenomenon that researchers of common-reading programs have noticed: Significant numbers of first-year college students do not share the enthusiasm of college higher-ups for the political messages of the books they are required to read. In 2005 Christopher Price, a political science professor at the State University of New York’s Brockport campus, released a survey for the American Democracy Project on faculty and student reactions to Nickel and Dimed, which had been SUNY Brockport’s freshman book for the summer of 2004. According to Price’s report, 93 percent of SUNY Brockport instructors who responded to the survey found Ehrenreich’s indictment of the capitalistic workplace “informative,” while only 59 percent of students held that opinion. Furthermore, only 39 percent of students thought that SUNY Brockport should continue its summer reading program in the summer of 2005, compared to 85 percent of instructors. “Many of my students absolutely hated this book, the condescending tone of the author,” noted one instructor. “I suspect most of our students already knew that working as a waitress or a salesperson ‘sucks’, and did not have to have their noses rubbed in the dirt by this unpleasant book,” wrote another.

In January 2007 Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota released results of an online survey it had conducted of college common reading programs across the country. While the Gustavus Adolphus researchers found the attitudes of students, faculty, librarians, and college administrators to be “mostly positive” regarding the programs, the percentage of students who recorded positive responses of any kind—61 percent in all—lagged well behind the 75 percent of faculty members and librarians who responded positively and the 88 percent of top administrators with positive feelings. Only 9 percent of students, however, checked the highest-category box in the survey, “very positive,” (the other 52 percent characterized their responses as merely “positive”), compared with 38 percent of librarians and 47 percent of top administrators who checked the “very positive” box in contrast to the merely “positive” box. Entering college freshmen are clearly less thrilled with their summer reading assignments than those on their campuses who dreamed them up—and they are also reasonably impervious to attempts by administrators to use freshman books as platforms for political indoctrination.

Nickel and Dimed is no longer quite the piece of agitprop du jour on campus that it was a few years ago when it first came out in print, but it is still very much part of the summer reading scene. Both Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania and California State University’s Northridge campus have assigned Ehrenreich’s book to their entering freshmen and have invited Ehrenreich to speak during orientation week–although Cal State Northridge’s website strives for ideological balance with “teaching resources” that include links to articles presenting a more positive picture of Ehrenreich’s sometime employer Wal-Mart as a low-price boon to the working poor she claims to champion. Such balance is not much in evidence, however, in this fall’s freshman handbook for Ball State University in Indiana, which included a copy of Kolbert’s Field Notes in the packet it mailed to entering students this summer. While not quite requiring Ball State freshmen to actually read Field Notes, the handbook does inform them that there will be “mandatory discussion group sessions” concerning Kolbert’s treatise on Aug. 24, the day before fall classes officially begin. The handbook also features a “homework assignment” that includes having freshmen calculate their ecological footprints on the Earth Day website and a page of “critical thinking questions” such as “Explain the ‘natural greenhouse effect’ and how it is related to global warming.” Students who want to “make a difference” in reducing the nation’s carbon output are advised to recycle aluminum cans, boycott bottled water, and—in what might come as a shock to Kolbert’s former bosses at the New York Times—read newspapers on the Internet instead of buying the paper versions. As a sop to those who do not share Ball State administrators’ climate-change alarmism—or who might complain about spending taxpayer dollars on student brainwashing at a publicly funded university–the handbook does include the URLs for three web pages (but no links in its online version) to which freshmen might turn for alternative views.

In all fairness, few colleges have gone quite so far as Ball State this year in turning the freshman summer reading assignment into a platform for a massive lifestyle-changing endeavor. Nonetheless, most of the books assigned for the classes of 2012 tend to be deadly earnest lucubrations about perceived current social problems that call to mind Sam Goldwyn’s famous quip, “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.” Concerning Three Cups of Tea, this summer’s freshman assignment at Rice, Bookmarks magazine noted, “[C]ritics agree that Three Cups of Tea should be read for its inspirational value rather than for its literary merit.” At the University of Idaho, the assignment is 1 Dead in the Attic: After Katrina (2007), a collection of New Orleans Times-Picayune reporter Chris Rose’s columns about the 2005 disaster. Entering freshman at Duke are expected work their way through What Is the What (2006), Dave Eggers’s 475-page novel about Sudanese civil-war refugees. At Appalachian State University in North Carolina, they’ll be reading The Glass Castle (2005), Jeannette Walls’s memoir about growing up with an alcoholic father, a hippie-artist mother, and an uncle who liked to masturbate in front of the children. At Louisiana State University, the assigned book is another memoir, Marjane Satrapis’s Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood (2004), a graphic-novel-style account of Satrapis’s life a youngster in revolutionary Iran.

What all of these books have in common is a recent publication date (1990 seems to be the cutoff year in most freshman programs) and every indication that even the most critically acclaimed of them (such as The Glass Castle) was selected for reasons other than its intrinsic value as a work of literature or lasting thought. That is in part because, despite common-reading programs’ stated goal of fostering a shared intellectual experience, they were originally devised not by college professors focused on the life of the mind or desirous of reviving the core liberal-arts curriculum centered around great book, but by librarians at public libraries seeking to lure confirmed television-viewers and Internet-surfers back to reading. “One Book, One City” programs in which every resident of the metropolis was supposed to read the same book at the same time, thus satisfying a longing for community, started appearing about a decade ago. The book chosen was inevitably something short, relatively contemporary (so as not to put off readers intimidated by, say, Aristotle or Henry James), and embodying moral lessons that librarians deemed important. To Kill a Mockingbird was and is a perennial one-city favorite. Because the assigned book was almost invariably still in print, book publishers and bookstore owners have become vociferous supporters of the programs.

When the one-book idea percolated into colleges, its moralistic, therapeutic, and easy-to-read ethos remained paramount. So did the notion that the book be of recent vintage and deal with some up-to-the-minute issue. This last has been a bonanza for authors, guaranteeing them not only bulk sales (the vast majority of colleges pick up the tab for the assigned books rather than hope that their students will buy them) but fees from the speaking engagements that often accompany a one-book choice. For example, when the University of Washington last fall assigned Kolbert’s Field Notes as its freshman book, it bought 10,000 copies for distribution. In 2006 Clemson University in South Carolina was said to have spent $50,000 in book copies and a speaker’s fee in the course of assigning its entering freshman Ann Patchett’s controversial memoir, Truth & Beauty: A Friendship (2004), criticized as pornographic by the state’s higher education commission (Patchett later netted even more by turning the episode into a self-aggrandizing article for The Atlantic). No one knows, or at least no one will reveal, how much money Ehrenreich has made from the numerous freshman assignments of Nickel and Dimed, but according to Bookscan, the Nielsen service that tracks book sales, more than 800,000 copies of her attack on capitalism have been purchased during its seven years in print.
The college committee that picks the freshman summer book typically includes faculty members—but also campus librarians, student-life counselors, and academic-affairs staffers. The selection criteria typically include lip service to encouraging freshmen to “grow intellectually” (the words are from Cal State Northridge’s website), but they also include such factors as: a not-too-challenging level of readability (today’s high-school graduates have limited literary exposure, which may explain why Persepolis and other graphic novels are popular list choices), the book’s relation to whatever program theme (racial sensitivity, greening the campus, and so forth) the college happens to be promoting for the year; the author’s availability for a campus speech; and, as might be expected, the book’s attention to “diverse cultural perspectives and…contemporary social issues” (Cal State Northridge again). Thus books by women, members of ethnic minorities, disabled people, and inhabitants of Third World countries are staples of summer reading lists. White male authors usually get chosen only when they are writing about one or more of the above—hence Three Cups of Tea and What Is the What.

Furthermore, many book-selection committees operate under the prevailing pedagogic assumption that young people want to read only about other young people with problems like their own (that’s the reason why Romeo and Juliet, with its teen-age hero and heroine, is practically the only Shakespeare play assigned in high school these days). The University of North Carolina’s Wilmington campus chose as this summer’s freshman reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go (2001), a dystopian fantasy about children cloned for their body parts, in part because, as Jenny Adams of the Wilmington campus’s freshman-support office said in a report by the Wilmington Star-News, “many of the book’s characters are about the same age as the students.” Similarly, Appalachian State picked The Glass Castle because Walls’s noir memoir involves “the children in the family [who] make difficult choices about their well-being and futures,” according to English professor Emily Maiden, quoted in an Appalachian State press release. Maiden added, “We believe reading The Glass Castle will encourage first-year students…to reexamine their notions about what it means to make choices about one’s life and future in the pursuit of personal efficacy and, perhaps, happiness.”
Well, maybe—but maybe, too, Appalachian State freshmen this year, like many Yale and Rice freshmen last year, will see right through the didactic aims of the professors and administrators at their colleges who use summer books as vehicles for simplistic moral and political lessons rather than as philosophical or literary works to be savored and critiqued for their own sakes. Why don’t colleges show respect for their entering students instead by assigning them genuinely substantial, exciting and timeless books that they are likely to ponder for many years? Well, one university actually does exactly that. It’s Cornell. Over past few years Cornell’s summer reading for freshmen has featured Sophocles’s Antigone (assigned in 2003), Kafka’s The Trial (assigned in 2004), Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (assigned in 2005), The Great Gatsby (assigned in 2006), and Nadine Gordimer’s The Pickup (assigned in 2007). This year’s selection is Lincoln at Gettysburg, historian Garry Wills’ Pulitzer Prize-winning 1993 examination of the famous Civil War speech in terms of its roots in Greek rhetoric and the language of the Declaration of Independence. Now, there’s a common reading experience likely to stick with Cornell students for the rest of their lives.


  • Mark Bauerlein

    Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

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4 thoughts on “Mandatory Summer Reading (Yawn)

  1. They’ve also assigned Nickel and Dimed at the University of Nevada, Reno. I was disappointed to see this turn to the superficially political. Last year they inaugurated the summer reading program with Robert Laxalt’s Sweet Promised Land, which, though not quite one of the classics of the Cornell assignment, at least had relevance to the history and culture of the region where the University is located.

  2. I’ve never understood the conservative hostility toward reading books. I write in my “Patriotic Correctness” book (which, by the way, would be ideal for a “one book” program, hint, hint) about right-wing efforts to sue the University of North Carolina to stop reading. And for Allen to call Barbara Ehrenreich’s reporting “superficial” because she spent “only” a few weeks at each job is just mind-boggling. It is true that lots of students don’t bother to read non-mandatory book assignments, even if they’re given the book for free. Does that surprise anyone? It’s tough to get every student to read assigned books when they’re paying tuition and getting graded on them. Nor does Allen present the slightest evidence that students would rather read the Great Gatsby than a contemporary book, or that they learn more from it. These “one book” strategies may be imperfect ideas with imperfect books and imperfect implementation. But surely, given all the idiocy in most orientation and student life programs, “one book” plans are a bright spot for intellectual life on campus.

  3. More power to the Cornell program. But, er, Lincoln at Gettysburg?
    Hope someone read H.L. Mencken:
    “The Gettysburg speech was at once the shortest and the most famous oration in American history…the highest emotion reduced to a few poetical phrases. Lincoln himself never even remotely approached it. It is genuinely stupendous. But let us not forget that it is poetry, not logic; beauty, not sense. Think of the argument in it. Put it into the cold words of everyday. The doctrine is simply this: that the Union soldiers who died at Gettysburg sacrificed their lives to the cause of self-determination — that government of the people, by the people, for the people, should not perish from the earth. It is difficult to imagine anything more untrue . The Union soldiers in the battle actually fought against self-determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of their people to govern themselves.”

  4. After working as a college adjunct and earning less by the hour than I would have earned working at the local Walmart, I’d like to see Ms. Ehrenreich, or, better, the college deans who assign her in fits of righteousness, turn their attention to the universities as a more relevant site of systemic fiscal exploitation, if that is what they wish to explore.
    Of course, it would be better simply not to impose any required-reading ideological litmus tests to students. There are examples far worse than the books cited here.

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