Harvard Tells the Freshmen What to Read

Lewis, a professor and former dean of Harvard College, wrote
that the texts Harvard freshmen are reading this year “are more
politically correct and less challenging than they used to be.” Yes, it would
seem so. 
are this year’s readings:

A More Perfect Union, Barack Obama

Vivaldi , 
M. Steele

the Color of My Collar, 
David Tebaldi ’10

Asian American I Know Is Smart, 
Frank H. Wu

Is the Surgeon? , 
Chris Barrett, GSAS ’12

Psalm, Wislawa Szymborska

Snapshot of the Harvard Class of 2016 

first thing to note is that the inclusion of President Obama’s famous speech
carries a political  and partisan weight
this year that it would not have had last year or next. Lewis writes: “Was
there really no alternative to including the Obama text as required reading for
all freshmen, two months before the first election in which many of them will

this year’s texts give new Harvard students clear clues on what grievances they
ought to feel and which class and racial resentments are deemed proper on this famous
campus. And the emphasis on stereotypes is heavy: Claude Steele’s depiction of
stereotype threat as a reason for lack of success by many qualified women and minorities;
Frank Wu’s complaint that Asian-Americans are conventionally stereotyped as
smart and successful; David Tebaldi’s discomfort as a black student of humble
means at Harvard confronted by bewildering expectations and, yes, stereotypes;
and Chris Barrett’s rambling complaint that people always think of surgeons as
male and heterosexual.

readings are thin gruel indeed, saying the same thing over and over and shaping
discussions scheduled to be based on these readings the same way. Claude Steele’s
controversial theory of stereotype threat, to give one example, might have been
balanced by inclusion of a piece by his brother, Shelby Steele, an equally
prominent scholar who disagrees.

The last text on the list is a poem by the late Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska,
which begins (in translation): “Oh, the leaky boundaries of man-made states!,” and
ends “Only what is human can truly be foreign. The rest is mixed vegetation,
subversive moles and wind.”

final note: though the readings were presented in the name of “diversity,” no
white male made the list. 


  • 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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21 thoughts on “Harvard Tells the Freshmen What to Read

  1. If telling freshman what to read is a bad thing, the University of Chicago ought to be carpet-bombing into oblivion.
    The trouble with Harvard’s reading list is that it’s not about intellectual development at all – it’s about social inclusion and stereotyping. This may, in fact, be necessary – I’m prepared to believe that Harvard freshmen tend to be bright and well-read, but still young jerks – but it’s kind of discouraging.

  2. My oldest son is an engineering major in “Honors College” at the local state university–which entitles him to an additional scholarship which about a third of his tuition. He has to attend a once-a-month Saturday discussion/leadership training/indoctrination session as a condition of that scholarship.
    As he described it, 85% of the first Saturday session was politically-correct b.s. There was a subset of the students in attendance, the sort of well-intentioned young people who major in political science, pre-law, or “_______ Studies” and have ambitions of saving the world through bureaucracy, who took it all very seriously. The rest of them (which includes all the engineers) knew it was b.s. and an indoctrination session, kept their opinions to themselves so that it would be over sooner, and made snarky comments to each other about it afterward.
    Based on what my son tells me, while there’s a lot of attempted indoctrination going on in colleges, most students are capable of seeing it for what it is and discounting it accordingly.

  3. For very good reason I doubt you’ll see Ayn Rand on a freshman reading list ever. William Manchester, hmm. Ken Kesey from the sixties but not James Welch or Fred Exley? A Separate Peace but not Catcher? I, the Jury is a good pick but is, except for shock value, inferior to Friends of Eddie Coyle. For that matter if we’re exposing young minds to Spillane why not go whole hog with The Deep.

  4. This list sounds like the work of administrators. Political correctness enforcement which goes by the more benign names of diversity or multiculturalism, is a major growth industry in college administration. One of the features of the politicizing of college life is the intrusion of academically unqualified administrators into the academic life of colleges and universities.
    It is hard to believe that Harvard has sunk this low.

  5. It’s not just the weak and slanted content of the reading list which seeks to indoctrinate students but the very low level of the writing. Is this all that an incoming freshman can handle? That speaks volumes for the pitiful products of American education.

  6. David Tebaldi is white. That’s way too ethnic a last name to be black, and a simple google search will get you a picture.

  7. Dante’s Divine Comedy, Shakespeare (who cribbed plots from Dante), Helen MacInnes (for 1960’s spy stories which reverberate still today). More English poetry including Chaucer and Beowulf (audio versions are cool!) Anything by John Julius Norwich (A Short History of Byzantium, The Middle Sea)Charles C. Mann’s 1491 and 1493
    Susan Lee

  8. Got to put in a 2nd plug for the list of books recommended by Writeby. Not just Harvard freshmen will benefit from reading them.

  9. Whether the authors and topics are good or bad is subjective. But I did find this interesting:
    “These readings are thin gruel indeed, saying the same thing over and over and shaping discussions scheduled to be based on these readings the same way. Claude Steele’s controversial theory of stereotype threat, to give one example, might have been balanced by inclusion of a piece by his brother, Shelby Steele, an equally prominent scholar who disagrees.”
    So Harvard purposely avoided a made-to-order exercise in critical thinking for the freshmen? What better way to spur comparison and contrast than to highlight the different thoughts of two equally prominent brothers on a topic. It’s almost as if they didn’t want the students supplementing thought or judging the soundness and general worth of statements. Hmm?

  10. My son Ian”t at Harvard, but in our conversation the other night he made references to Paradise Lost (Milton), Shakespeare, the Bible and the Koran.
    Since he’s read all of these texts ( and a lot more) he just uses them as examples in conversations. I’m thinking that maybe homeschooling and community college were a better foundation than Harvard- certainly his self selected reading material is more challenging and thought provoking.

  11. Writeby: That sort of list is only going to get a ‘TLDR’ response.
    MUCH more to the point, a short list:
    Ari Mendelson’s Bias Incident: The World’s Most Politically Incorrect Novel
    which is available at Amazon on Kindle for the wallet-breaking sum of $.99!
    And F. A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom
    which is available in paperback, used for $4.95
    And the frosh should read them is that order.
    Is there any possibility of get a viral campaign going to push for these choices to be brought to the attention of the incoming class?

  12. Writeby, that’s a fantastic list! Where’d you get it from mate?
    I recommend the Gateway to the Great Books, and of course thenGreat Booms of the Western World, personally.

  13. Here’s an alternative reading list for those Harvard frosh–if they can handle it:
    A Guide to Effective Study/Dr. Edwin A. Locke
    The Histories/Herodotus
    The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire/Edward Gibbons
    A World Lit Only By Fire/William Manchester
    The Discoverers/Daniel J. Boorstin
    A History of the United States and Its People/Edward Eggleston
    Washington’s Crossing/David Hackett Fisher
    In Pursuit of Reason: The Life of Thomas Jefferson/Noble E. Cunningham, Jr.
    Life & Times of Frederick Douglass/Frederick Douglass
    The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich/William Shire
    American Caesar/William Manchester
    Ethnic America: A History/Thomas Sowell
    Out of America/Keith B. Richburg
    A Familiar Exposition of
    The Constitution of the United States/Joseph Story
    Political Writings of John Locke/Editor: David Wooten
    Selected Essays on Political Economy/Frederic Bastiat
    Planned Chaos/Ludwig Von Mises
    Economics In One Lesson/Henry Hazlitt
    The Authentic Confucius: A Life of Thought and Politics/Ann-ping Chin
    The Discovery of the Child/Maria Montessori
    How to Raise a Brighter Child/Joan Beck
    Marva Collins’ Way/Marva Collins
    Twice As Less/Elizabeth Wilson Orr
    Less Than Words Can Say/Richard Mitchell
    Woe Is I/Patricia T. O’Conner
    The Billion Dollar Molecule/Barry Werth
    Longitude/Dava Sobel
    An Endless Series of Hobgoblins/Eric Hagen & James Worman
    Facts, Not Fear/Michael Sanera & Jane S. Shaw
    The Blind Watchmaker/Dr. Richard Dawkins
    A Modern Introduction to Ancient Indian Mathematics/ T. S. Bhanu Murthy
    The Psychology of Self-Esteem
    The Pocket Aristotle/Aristotle
    The Pocket Aquinas/Thomas Aquinas
    The Virtue of Selfishness & The Voice of
    Reason/Ayn Ran
    The Ominous Parallels/Dr. Leonard Peikoff
    The Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: The Man Who Was Sherlock Holmes/John Dickson Carr
    All Creatures Great and Small/James Herriot
    Brunelleschi’s Dome/Ross King
    Longitude/Dava Sobel
    Flight/Chris Kraft
    The Sketch Book/Washington Irving
    The Scarlet Letter & Selected Tales and Sketches /Nathaniel Hawthorne
    The Count of Monte Cristo/Alexander Dumas
    Tales of Hoffman/E.T.A. Hoffman
    Ninety-Three, Notre Dame de Paris, The Man Who Laughs & Toilers of the Sea/Victor Hugo
    The Brothers Karamazov & The Possessed/Fyodor Dostoyevsky
    A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court & The Prince and the Pauper/Mark Twain
    Around the World in Eighty Days/Jules Verne
    Scaramouche/Rafael Sabatini
    The Secret Garden/Frances Hodgson Burnett
    The Nerve of Foley/Frank Spearman
    The Scarlet Pimpernel/Baroness Orczy
    The Four Feathers/A.E.W. Mason
    Captains Courageous & The Days Work/Rudyard
    Sherlock Holmes/Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
    Calumet K/Merwin-Webster
    Collected Stories of O. Henry/O. Henry
    Riders of the Purple Sage/Zane Grey
    It Can’t Happen Here & Babbit/Sinclair Lewis
    The Best Western Stories of/Ernest Haycox
    A Separate Peace/John Knowles
    Quo Vadis/Henryk Sienkiewicz
    Anthem & The Fountainhead
    & Atlas Shrugged/Ayn Rand
    Shane/Jack Shaeffer
    Big Red/Jim Kjelgaard
    National Velvet/Enid Bagnold
    The Heart of Princess Osra/Anthony Hope
    Strong Poison/Dorothy Sayers
    A Town Like Alice, Trustee from the Toolroom & The Far Country/Nevil Shute
    I, the Jury/Mickey Spillane
    The Murder of Roger Ackroyd/Agatha Christie
    One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest/Ken Kesey
    Barometer Rising/Hugh MacLennan
    Advise and Consent/Allen Drury
    Exodus/Leon Uris
    This Perfect Day/Ira Levin
    Othello/William Shakespeare
    Monna Vanna/Maurice Maeterlinck
    Cyrano/Edmond Rostand
    The Importance of Being Earnest &
    A Woman of No Importance/Oscar Wilde
    The Miracle Worker/William Gibson
    Inherit The Wind/Jerome Lawrence &
    Robert E. Lee
    Night of January 16th/Ayn Rand
    Who’s Life Is It, Anyway?/Brian Clark

  14. My daughter attends Mississippi State University. Her freshman reading this year was a book called Unbowed: A Memoir, which is the autobiography of Wangari Maathai. It has a leftist slant, but at least the woman did something that actually improved people’s lives. Unbelievable that MSU has a better freshman reading requirement than Harvard…

  15. I don’t see the problem with Wislawa Szymborska on the reading list. Her work is strong and insightful, even funny.
    Szymborska was Polish, “Psalm” was written about fifteen years before the fall of the Soviet Union. The most obvious border she had issues with is the Iron Curtain enclosing her nation.
    The poem is available on the internet, free as a bird:
    Need I mention every single bird that flies in the face of frontiers
    or alights on the roadblock at the border?
    A humble robin – still, its tail resides abroad
    while its beak stays home. If that weren’t enough, it won’t stop bobbing!

  16. The question I ask is what happens to those students not astute enough to parrot back the required “correct” responses to what they think of these items.
    Where will the line between merely holding an unapproved/unpopular opinion and mental illness be drawn? Will Harvard do what other universities already are doing — declaring their political dissident students to be “insane” and carting them off to the psych ward?

  17. I’ve come to the conclusion that the most difficult thing about Harvard is admission. Once they let you into the club of “right sort of people”, then you’re set. Intellectual development or ethics? Forget it. Are those rumors that the Medical School only has pass/fail tests, and then students can take them multiple times? Or that once Harvard Faculty were to report when they weren’t giving a Final Exam. So few did that now they must report when they do. No Finals? Just presentations and reports? Pretty expensive exclusive club is what it sounds like.

  18. On the brighter side – imagine how much pleasure the freshmen will get when they do eventually come across a white male ‘master’. By promoting the second rate Harvard is only highlighting the excellent.

  19. What is most troubling is that “one of our best universities” feels the need to force it’s students to read. If one is going to Harvard, shouldn’t one be the kind of student that already reads voraciously? These lists say much more about the students than they do about the school. The fact that the books are all decidedly leftist and promote one presidential candidate over another is no surprise.

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