Message to Freshmen: Let’s Start with Kafka and Darwin

In the wake of the National Association of Scholars’ report on summer reading for college freshmen—the report found many of the assigned books trivial and politically one-sided—we asked Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, to explain his institution’s unusually rigorous approach to summer reading.

franz-kafka.jpgFor the past two years, Bard College has asked first-year students to read works by Kafka and Darwin over the summer. These texts then become subjects of analysis when the students arrive on campus in August for an intensive three-week program of reading and writing before the fall semester begins. Let me explain the thinking behind this approach.

The idea of assigning summer readings to students entering college has three justifications. First, since American high school students usually take more of a vacation from serious thinking and study during the summer months than is warranted, readings remind them that college promises to be demanding and difficult and that it would therefore behoove them to stay in some sort of intellectual shape. This exercise is especially welcome because once high school seniors learn what college they will attend, they often cease to study seriously so that the final months of high school are wasted.

The second reason for summer readings is that most colleges have a program of general education that complements the normal process of choosing a major. Summer readings are often designed to introduce students to that general education program, and readings often become the first subjects of paper writing and class discussion.

The third reason for summer readings is somewhat superficial. Institutions have learned over time that first impressions are sometimes the most lasting. Some research has indicated that students decide to remain at an institution or to transfer based on attitudes they form during the first six weeks of the first year. Whether or not this is true, during the lull between the end of high school and the first semester of college, institutions use summer readings to signal their aspirations and to help shape students’ initial impressions.

In the case of Bard College, to some extent all three reasons inform our decision to assign summer readings to incoming first-year students. We have staked out a clear position against the conventional high school curriculum in the sense that we believe high school is not sufficiently rigorous and takes too long. Bard College at Simon’s Rock, which admits students after tenth grade, was the first so-called early college in the United States. Bard also runs two public schools in New York City—Bard High School Early College in Manhattan and in Queens—that accept students after the eighth grade in a program of study that allows them to earn both the high school diploma and the Associate of Arts degree within four years.

Bard also uses the summer readings to remind entering students of the idealism it believes should be prevalent among students and faculty, an idealism about the task of learning, and the satisfaction that comes from a rigorous engagement in interpretation, analysis, and the formulation of one’s own considered opinions.

blithewood.jpgFaith in human reason and its inherent link to liberty and justice is an eighteenth-century conviction held by the founders of this republic, who wished its citizens to be capable of distinguishing between fact and fiction, truth and lies. The sooner the connection between education and liberty is strengthened on the level of higher education the better. From the start, the summer before the first year, Bard students confront the opportunity to develop the skills that our Founding Fathers wished the ideal citizen to have.

Our summer readings point our students to the habits of mind—analysis and argument, inquiry and inference, skepticism and belief—that will enable them to distinguish appearance from reality, sense from nonsense. Bard gives first-year students the opportunity to apply these skills in two intensive three-week programs that lie outside the traditional semester calendar and transcend curricular requirements.. The first, the Language and Thinking Program, engages students in close reading, interpretation, and writing and takes place in August before the fall semester starts. The second is the new Citizen Science Program. Designed to help first-year students encounter and engage scientific questions with confidence, the program takes place in January between the fall and spring semesters and focuses on a single issue, infectious disease.

Bard’s required summer readings most closely reflect the intent and purpose of its general education sequence, the First-Year Seminar. A two-semester, credit-bearing course of required readings that mark significant developments in political, ethical, and scientific thought, the First-Year Seminar demands a great deal of analytic reading and writing. In the opinion of our faculty, first-year students should be introduced to that which they would not ordinarily encounter in any other context. In most American high schools the choice of texts is highly regulated by politicians and bureaucrats, and rarely do students encounter readings with serious philosophical content. Even more discouraging in terms of the high school curriculum, educators are afraid to ask students to read classic texts closely, to struggle with difficult and unfamiliar ideas.

In Bard’s view, a general education program should offset this deficiency by asking students to read texts from worlds different from their own, particularly worlds from which they are separated in time. In the fall semester of the First-Year Seminar we ask students to read, among other texts, the Book of Genesis, the Aeneid, and selections from The Divine Comedy as well as the writings of Galileo. In the second semester, readings include Rousseau’s “Second Discourse,” Frankenstein, and Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents as well as Levi’s The Periodic Table. A full description of the First-Year Seminar and complete list of readings can be accessed here.

Not only the ideas, but also the rhetoric and language of the First-Year Seminar readings suggest a relationship between author and reader of which many students are unaware. We read the Aeneid before The Divine Comedy because we know that Dante presumed his readers would have been familiar with Virgil’s epic. We read the “Second Discourse” before Frankenstein because readers of Mary Shelley’s novel would have understood its engagement with Rousseau’s arguments about the nature of the human.

The task of a general education program is to open new vistas for undergraduates overwhelmed by the contemporary density, rapidity, and ephemeral nature of information. Part of this task is to recover memory and distinguish continuities between the distant and unfamiliar past and the present. Another aspect is to strengthen the links between the world of literature and the world of science. In the First-Year Seminar we analyze the substance of Galileo’s defense of Copernican science in his “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina,” but we also study its arts of persuasion. When we read The Periodic Table, we examine how the author, a survivor of Auschwitz, discovered in chemical reactions a way to understand the causes and effects of extreme tyranny and sadism.

For these reasons, for the last two years we have asked incoming first-year students to read two texts in the summer before they arrive at Bard—Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and the fourth chapter of Darwin’s The Origin of Species, “Natural Selection.” On some level, students will find something familiar about these summer readings as well as something counterintuitive and obscure. A simplified version of what takes place in Kafka’s short story has some presence in popular culture, and at a minimum most students will have heard someone use the word “Kafkaesque.” A direct encounter with the writing of this remarkable German-speaking Jew from Prague who was reluctant to have his writings published can be inspiring precisely because of the tension between image, reception, and textual reality that characterizes both The Metamorphosis and Kafka’s life.

090206-charles-darwin-02.jpgThe disjunction between image and reality could not be more pronounced than in the case of Charles Darwin. The claims of no other thinker or scientist, with the possible exception of Einstein, have been so mangled and distorted in the popular imagination. Somehow every citizen thinks he or she knows what Darwin thought without actually having read his writings. Direct engagement with Darwin’s work not only makes the character and significance of modern biology more apparent, exciting, and vital, but the brilliance and subtlety of Darwin’s thought quickly dispel the distortions that dominate scientific journalism in the popular media.

Colleges must counter the experience of conventional high school education in the United States, where learning is little more than a standardized test-driven chore with utilitarian benefits. In college, students should discover that most of the important writings and discoveries they will study were not generated for their benefit, but rather came into being in order to illuminate and improve life. It is precisely the connection between learning and living that justifies the life of the mind and makes study and inquiry a treasured form of human activity and among the most rewarding.

This belief cannot be preached; it can only be experienced. What better mechanism to set this experience in motion than assigning common readings in the summer? Students who encounter vaguely familiar texts like The Metamorphosis or “Natural Selection” will discover on entering college, through the intervention of teaching and the exchange of ideas with peers, that there is so much more to learn than they had expected about texts and subjects with which they believed they were familiar. With this realization, they embark on a journey of discovery that will strengthen their confidence in themselves and the enterprise of serious learning.


Leon Botstein has been president of Bard College since 1975


16 thoughts on “Message to Freshmen: Let’s Start with Kafka and Darwin

  1. As a current undergraduate at Bard College, I found the readings during the summer incredibly stimulating. Darwin was often misconstrued and utilized for ideological ends, and it was important for us to both engage with the scientific, literary, political, etc ramifications of his work with a critical focus.
    I found the extra-curricular discussions were often poignant, profound, and exhilarating in their depth and scope. And as an aspiring educator, I believe that these programs are the step in the right direction. Summer readings helped me understand that a liberal-arts college is not meant to churn out professors (as it often does), but initiate a life-long relationship with the humanities and sciences that does not have economic concerns as its propellant. It is a shame that Bard costs so much–it provides an education that everyone deserves.

  2. Excellent arguments for the summer readings. One of the arguments reminds me of this striking passage from Robert Hutchins’ The Great Conversation.
    “The trials of the citizen now surpass anything that previous generations ever knew. Private and public propaganda beats upon him from morning till night all his life long. If independent judgement is the sine qua non of effective citizenship in a democracy, then it must be admitted that such judgement is harder to maintain than it ever has been before. It is too much to hope that a strong dose of education in childhood and youth can inoculate a man to withstand the onslaughts on his independent judgment that society conducts, or allows to be conducted, against him every day. For this, constant mental alertness and mental growth are required.

  3. Very much to the point, including the remarks on high schools.
    In this regard, one potential issue of fact: I believe the Mary Baldwin College Program for the Exceptionally Gifted, in existence for over 30 years, accepting young women beginning at age 13, is older, if I am not mistaken. These two are still the only early college programs east of the Mississippi (although there are a few other programs closer to high school/college hybrids.)

  4. I find this very interesting indeed, especially when compared with our own approach here in South Africa (where expectations are much, much lower).
    I was intersted in accessing the student essays as I thought it might be interesting to get our students aware of what their peers elsewhere in the world are doing. Is it possible to email these to me, or to give me password access? Many thanks.

  5. I have admired Leon Botstein’s perspective ever since reading a piece he wrote years ago on writing and how important it is to engage in its continued development. This piece is also exceptional.
    I am a largely retired teacher with considerable experience teaching first-year students and wrestling with colleagues over the question of texts and approaches for first-year seminars. Botstein clearly understands the issues and is nicely skeptical of trendiness. My son went to a small Liberal arts College with a fine multi-year humanities requirement informed by a solid philosophy such as Botstein recommends. 11 years later, when my daughter attended, the requirement changed, and it was very clear that the faculty was more interested in teaching individual specialties or chapters of their dissertations than they were in coming together
    to agree on some common texts. My daughter was taught by someone who had no expertise in evaluating or commenting on written work; it was clear to me that faculty were no longer dedicated to the sort of educational experienc my son had received. So I applaud Bard for still carrying the torch.

  6. I went to Bard from 1973-1977.
    The world(s) that that educational experience opened to me changed my life for the better, allowing me to become a productive, innovative contributor to society in ways that I never imagined. This is particularly meaningful in that I did not come from privilege–far, far from it.
    I wish that every student, regardless of class or station in life could experience a comprehensive liberal arts education. Sadly it seems that the true liberal arts education is becoming something well beyond the grasp, and more importantly, the desire of the average college bound, high school graduate.

  7. In the mid-sixties, at another college, I had a history of civilization required course in freshman and sophomore years. It was a broad survey course intended to integrate political, literary, artistic and philosophical thought from the Classical Age through the usual stations and petering out somewhere around Claus Oldenburg. It was most of the humanities I had before majoring in a physical science.
    I wish that I could say that the response to this exposure was everything that Bard wishes for its students. A the end of my teens, other thoughts were foremost and I was never quite able to synchronize, let alone think critically, about all the material.
    Yet, it was enough of a Skinner Box that throughout my adult life it seldom seems that I lack context when I run across the same themes and an amazing amount of detail penetrated.
    Fashions come, they fade, are replaced by other fads that in turn become old hat. Twenty-five centuries of Homeric scholarship shows some staying power. May the DWEMness be forgiven.

  8. All Western civ. What about the Bhagavad Gita? The Analects? The Qur’an? Gilgamesh? The Popul Vuh? The Shahnameh? Rumi? Basho? Valmiki? How can you be an educated person without having read outside the Western tradition?

  9. Dear Dr. Botstein: I am an elderly library clerk with several degrees. I had only some of the “Core” or Great Books courses as a under-graduate in the 1950s. Since then, I’ve tried to make up the deficiencies through Great Books discussions, independent reading, asking doctoral students what are the seminal books in their fields. Even as one foot is poised over the grave, I’m reading Latin poets like Virgil, renaissance writers like Erasmus, and modern philosophers like John Rawls. I still hope to be an educated man at my death. I appreciate the kind of education you are offering at Bard.

  10. Mygod, the pretension! Is this what passes for intellectualism these days?
    “American high school students usually take more of a vacation from serious thinking and study during the summer months than is warranted.”
    I didn’t realize the good President had decided for all America’s youngsters what is, and is not warranted in terms of intellectual rest.
    If Bard needs to “prime” their students for education by forcing them to read Kafka and Darwin, perhaps they are spending too much time worried about how to be intellectual elites, and not enough time actually preparing students for a real liberal education that teaches them about the world as it IS and not JUST how it has been.
    Reading Kafka does not make one a critical thinker. Participating in civic society, traveling, being engaged and open to new experiences, meeting people of different cultures, and learning how to disagree without violence or hatred are what makes someone a critical thinker of the modern era.
    Bard sounds awful. Glad I didn’t go there.

  11. This tradition of assigning books to new college/university students is a model that should be adopted in Canada. It would also be a welcome change from all the administrative activities (e.g. residence, fees, class schedules, relocation, obtaining a student card etc) that new students have to complete.

  12. Absolutely right. This makes me wish I had gone to Bard College myself. (By the way, high school IS too long and too condescending!)
    I am a graduate student who has taught two First-Year Seminars, both of which began with collective summer reading of journalistic non-fiction (e.g. “The Blind Side”). These weren’t bad books, but they weren’t very good either; fine for skimming oneself, as one skims Slate magazine with the morning coffee, but hardly able to provide anything like a strong educational foundation. They were well-crafted but fundamentally weak. And they too often encouraged pseudo-deep student responses.
    We need to give students more red meat. More philosophy, more classical literature, more difficult novels, more difficult poetry. Many students avoid these things simply because they have not been exposed to them, or because professors have been cowed into teaching to the B student as though he or she were an A student. Too many classes have already waltzed through too many colleges with hodgepodge humanities degrees, having never really engaged in a profound way with the problems common to all of us – mortality, reality, vanity, desire. And too many science majors have very reasonably concluded that the humanities have little or nothing to contribute to the problems of our time, simply because they haven’t been made to think through Plato, Augustine, or Samuel Johnson.
    Thank you for this heartening article.

  13. Thank you. Thank you.
    As someone schooled in the subcontinent, I was convinced my academic peers in the US were better read, more analytically prepared and more aware of the deep contributions of historical thinkers than someone from a Third World country could have been.
    I’d advise others following in my shoes to spend time with graduates from Bard.

  14. Good try, Leo, but you can’t escape the charge that Bard’s choices are precisely the trivial and politically radical selections that the NAS criticizes. The Metamorphosis is nothing more than an adolescent angst tale, an identity crisis story fit only for college freshmen (alright, so maybe you should assign it — when else in their lives would your students relate to it?). Your description of it — “the tension between image, reception, and textual reality that characterizes both The Metamorphosis and Kafka’s life” — is postmodern gibberish, a symptom of what’s wrong.
    And I don’t need to remind you of the role Darwin plays in the politics of humanity in our age! You might as well assign The Communist Manifesto or simply pass out morning-after pills.

  15. I would say that reading Kafka is essential to understand the hiring and firing practices of Leon Botstein, starting with the appointment of a professional anti-Communist Jonathan Brent to fill the Alger Hiss Chair and the cashiering of Joel Kovel who used to occupy it.

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