The Perils of the “Common Reading” Assignment

Of the criticisms directed toward the contemporary academy, the charge of “indoctrination” strikes me as the most overhyped. The phenomenon certainly occurs; the most obvious recent example came in the “dispositions” controversy, when education students around the country could choose between agreeing with their professors’ political opinions and finding another career path. But it’s relatively rare to see professors browbeating students, in class, regarding overtly political matters.

Far more common–and pernicious–is the attempt (especially in the humanities and social sciences) to exclude topics on grounds of their “traditional” approach. Or the efforts, documented by FIRE, to restrict freedom of speech, freedom of association, and due process on campus. Or the financial impact of sprawling college bureaucracies, most notably those devoted to student life or to promoting certain types of “diversity.

That said, one type of college initiative is all but guaranteed to raise allegations of indoctrination, if normally of the soft variety. “Common reading” assignments, usually for incoming freshmen, sprung up as a marketing tool, a way to demonstrate to parents the college’s enthusiasm for getting their sons or daughters into an intellectual mindset even before the student arrives on campus. Like most marketing tools, common readings have virtually no impact on a student’s intellectual development.

But they do have a potential impact on the college. For the most part, the selection of common readings provides an almost textbook case of “groupthink” in action—the committees generally consist of either student life/”diversity” administrators or professors from disproportionately one-sided departments (English, Sociology, various studies programs). Coming from such committees, the chosen books unsurprisingly too often veer toward caricatures of political correctness.

Occasionally the committees go too far. Common readings came onto the national political radar in 2002, when the University of North Carolina assigned Michael Sells’ Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations. An outcry from students, parents, and local legislators prompted the university to allow students to select another book, though UNC did stave off a lawsuit on the matter. Last year, meanwhile, my own institution, Brooklyn College, embarrassed itself by mandating that all incoming students read Moustafa Bayoumi’s How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America, which closed with a chapter riddled with factual errors and highly dubious statistical inferences designed to portray either Israel or U.S. policy toward Muslims in a highly negative light.

After the outcry over the Bayoumi selection, Brooklyn slightly reconfigured the procedure through which the common reading was chosen, resulting in this year’s choice, Brother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat. The book fit the college’s desired selection criteria—it was written in a memoir style, and it involved a community (Haitians) who play a role in Brooklyn.

Unlike last year’s fiasco, there’s no reason to believe that the selection committee did anything wrong or that the choice of Brother, I’m Dying was in any way inappropriate. In this respect, the book does a better job than did Bayoumi of illustrating the perils of the common reading assignment.

For instance, I strongly support a more liberal immigration policy, on both moral and economic grounds, yet can’t help but note that the book contains one highly emotional vignette—the death of an uncle in an immigration detention center—that would seem more far more likely to obscure, rather than illuminate, a typical student’s understanding of immigration affairs. It’s also hard not to notice that the committee came up with a memoir that reflects on an exceedingly dubious U.S. foreign policy venture. (I would position the 1915-1934 Haitian occupation with the U.S.-triggered 1954 coup in Guatemala as the two most immoral decisions in 20th century U.S. foreign policy.)

In the groupthink environment that exists on today’s college campuses, of course there’d be movement to the extremes on foreign and immigration policy within virtually any faculty committee. One Education professor recommended the book by rejoicing that it “will bother the conscience of Americans”; another said it will help people understand how immigrants (unlike, I suppose, virtually any native-born American who has to deal with the TSA) ask themselves at airports, “What if officials discover the potato cake I stashed in the carry-on or detain me for unimaginable reasons?”

By contrast, imagine the chances of any “common reading” committee recommending a book that, say, reflected positively on the post-World War II occupation of West Germany, or —in the hopes of “bother[ing] the conscience of Americans”—featured the reminisces of a plucky woman who had devoted her life to championing pro-life causes.

An argument could be made, of course, that for the most part common readings do little harm, and should simply be ignored. But when an educational initiative produces no discernable academic benefit while simultaneously exposing colleges to a clear risk of outside criticism or—as in the case of the Bayoumi mandate—justifiable scorn, it’s time to reconsider the idea.


  • KC Johnson

    KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

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2 thoughts on “The Perils of the “Common Reading” Assignment

  1. I agree that although explicit and intentional indoctrination certainly occurs, it is far less common and far less problematic than a subtle indoctrination by osmosis on our campuses. Issues such as “diversity” have been so deeply ingrained in the conventional values of universities that readings promoting accepted positions on such issues seem to many faculty members and administrators little more than expressions of support for self-evident virtue.

  2. Big fan, K.C. I, like you, am a liberal who has little sympathy (and a lot less patience) for PC bullcrap.
    I’d be interested to know what you think about the CIA-supported Iranian coup that got rid of a duly elected president and installed the Shah, which then led to empowering the present gang of theocratic crackpots. A more naked violation of our supposed democratic principles could hardly be imagined.
    Keep at it. You’re doing us a lot of good.

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