Amen to Bard’s Reading Program, but…

President Botstein’s portrait of Bard College’s summer reading assignments in the context of the college’s curriculum and larger educational aims is winsome and compelling. The college leads its students astutely into reading important books. It attends to the order in which such books should be read—Virgil before Dante. It is mindful of the need to challenge students with books that demand their full attention.

The reasons Botstein offers for colleges to offer summer reading programs, however, don’t track very closely with what most of the colleges in the NAS survey say they are doing. According to Botstein, these programs are founded on the need to rouse high school grads from their summer torpor; to introduce them to general education; and for the institution to make a good first impression on its sometimes skittish and prone-to-transfer new students.

But the colleges we surveyed say something else. Many of them say some version of the idea that they want to “build community” on campus by giving students a “shared intellectual experience.” Kalamazoo College, which we quoted in the report, says its:

Summer Common Reading is an important first step in building a cohesive, dynamic, educational community.

UNC Chapel Hill says its program:

is designed to provide a common experience for incoming students, to enhance participation in the intellectual life of the campus through stimulating discussion and critical thinking around a current topic, and to encourage a sense of community between students, faculty and staff.

Sacramento State wants to “engage” all members of the “community” in a lively, intellectual conversation based on their shared reading experience.

Hamline College in St. Paul says its common reading program “intends to”:

-introduce you to a challenging work that gives you the opportunity to read and think critically—skills you will need in college;

-act as a starting point for discussion and activities in your First Year Seminar; and

-prepare you for discussions related to our socio-economic status issues in the United States and how social justice advocacy is critical in today’s society

Ivy Tech Community College in Bloomington, Indiana says the purpose of its common reading initiative is to create a shared intellectual experience uniting all members of the academic community—students, faculty, and staff—with the goal of involving students in academic life beyond the classroom and enhancing student success.

Granted, these statements and hundreds more like them don’t say exactly the same thing, but they have a strong family resemblance and little overlap with Botstein’s circumspect reasons.

I haven’t yet found a college other than Bard that comes right out and says, as Botstein does, that the college assigns summer readings partly because ‘high school is not sufficiently rigorous.” Clearly that wouldn’t be a good thing to say to those skittish students, even if it is exactly what the colleges really think. Even as he says it, Botstein himself is restrained. “Not sufficiently rigorous” is a euphemism. Most of our high schools are curricular and intellectual Dunkirks. The best that smart students can hope for is a quick evacuation. And Bard College, very much to its credit, offers just that to some talented students.

Botstein’s comments on how its summer reading program feeds into the college’s general curriculum are moving. I would wish many more students could find themselves under the stewardship of a college truly concerned “to open new vistas for undergraduates overwhelmed by the contemporary density, rapidity, and ephemeral nature of information.” Of course, the very integration of its summer reading program with the general curriculum disqualified Bard from our list of 290 programs. But it is good to have an example of how this venture can be done right.

As to Bard’s choice of texts, Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and the fourth chapter of Darwin’s The Origin of Species, “Natural Selection,” are among the writings that any young man or woman aspiring to join the conversation of literate adults ought to read. The only surprise I register about these selections is their brevity. Kafka’s stories only grow in depth and significance and solemn mystery the more of them one reads; and The Origin of Species has riches beyond its most famous chapter. Perhaps a good many Bard students, having had a taste of each writer, forge ahead. But I am a little puzzled that, given the urgent reasons Botstein cites for introducing students to great works before they begin their formal studies, that the college contents itself with such dainty plate of hors d’oeuvres.

Peter Wood

Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars and author of “1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project.”

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