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.


  • John Leo

    John Leo is the editor of Minding the Campus, dedicated to chronicling imbalances within higher education and restoring intellectual pluralism to our American universities. His popular column, "On Society," ran in U.S.News & World Report for 17 years.

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2 thoughts on “Summer Reading for Freshmen—Arrggh!

  1. About two years ago I examined the courses on Islam, in some Ivy schools and some second tier schools. From their titles I noticed a “sanitizing” of Islam and the Muslim narrative injected into the course material. ( e.g. jihad is a personal objective to better oneself, or the U.S. is wrong to go to war in Afghanistan, Iraq, or wrong to assist Israel, etc. )

  2. As I note on my blog, the NAS report falls short in many ways. They simply don’t provide the evidence that these books are unintellectual, and they’re certainly not representative of the academic left.

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