In 2018, Lackawanna College in Scranton, Pennsylvania, asked all incoming students to read Justin LaKyle Brown’s diversity manual titled—I kid not— UGH!?! Not Another Diversity Book: When Multicultural Competence Meets a Real Reality. The title at least pays homage to the ubiquity of college diversity training. Lackawanna College already requires each student to complete a three-credit course in “Diversity/Global Studies.” But it has been spared a Chief Diversity Officer, so perhaps the administration sensed a real hole in students’ socio-political training that this book can fill.
Lackawanna is one of 475 colleges and universities that assigned students summer reading in 2018-2019, according to the National Association of Scholars’ new edition of Beach Books, its annual survey of common college reading programs. Lackawanna is, mercifully, the only one to assign Brown’s book.
But Lackawanna’s peers did not fare better. NAS found that the “overwhelming” majority of common reading assignments are “politically progressive, designed to promote activism, confined to American authors, literarily mediocre, juvenile, recent, and mostly nonfiction.” Colleges tend to treat their common reading programs with about as much intellectual seriousness as their welcome-to-campus-icebreakers and recreational climbing walls.
Lackawanna’s selection, which I’ll just call UGH, opens with the author Justin LaKyle Brown’s account of his near-birth on the side of a highway. (“Yes, a highway!” Fortunately, a helicopter rescued him and his mother “just in time. Get it? JUSTIN time?”) Apparently, in sixth grade, Brown discovered he was black when a store manager mistook him for a shoplifter. He went on to get accepted into thirty colleges, but “all those ‘promises’ of scholarships for African American men” proved false. He stumbled upon a full ride at Slippery Rock University where he decided he needed to “leave a legacy” and started a diversity program.
The book ticks all the common reading boxes. It’s a how-to guide: simple step-by-step instructions for doing something existentially meaningful. Somehow this always requires activism and rarely involves buckling down with your books and studying.
It is easy, self-consciously so. Chapter Two opens with accolades: “Congratulations, you made it this far.”
It is new, published in 2017, with a living author eager to come to campus.
It is about diversity. Beach Books analyzed the most common subjects for common readings. “Civil rights/Racism/Slavery” is number one, with 100 of the 518 assignments.
It is a book that, above all else, seeks to be relatable, that motherlode of modern academic wisdom. Brown assures readers that although he has a master’s degree and has met over 300 celebrities, he is “just a normal guy” who “loves to sleep in” and likes Netflix, take-out, “spending money on stuff I don’t need,” and “silly cat videos on YouTube.” He writes in colloquial grammatical errors (“there’s going to be some interesting topics,” he promises) and litters exclamation points (“That’s exactly what I’m telling you!” “So I did!”).
If that punctuation gives you a headache, consider the opening line of Lackawanna’s common reading program mission statement: “The purpose of this program is to provide everyone in the college community with an enjoyable and positive reading experience.”
No Reading Involved
Lackawanna College has 1,700 students and doesn’t make any of U.S. News & World Report’s rankings. But common reading programs are also common at highly ranked colleges and universities, including two-thirds of the top 100 universities in the nation and one-third of the top 100 liberal arts colleges. They do little better than Lackawanna.
The single most popular book is Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, another memoir, this one on how the corrupt criminal justice system should be overturned. Second place goes to Jennine Capó Crucet’s Make Your Home Among Strangers, a novel following a Latina student who struggles to “navigate” her majority-white college. Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a perennial common reading favorite coming in third this year, suggests the benefits of universal government-managed healthcare.
Many common readings are college survival guides. California Lutheran University chose Teach Yourself How to Learn: Strategies You Can Use to Ace Any Course at Any Level. Moorpark College assigned What the Best College Students Do. Another two institutions, Monmouth College and North Central College, assigned Becoming a Learner: Realizing the Opportunity of Education. One gets the impression that colleges, fully aware they have admitted ill-prepared students, treat their common reading programs as an introduction to their remedial courses.
Of the 518 readings NAS surveyed, 366—73 percent—were published since 2010. Twenty-three of the books were published in 2018, the same year they were assigned. Nearly a third were memoirs, mostly inspirational retrospectives by political activists. Sixteen, stretching the limits of common reading, were graphic novels.
A few common reading programs didn’t even involve reading. Two assigned films: the fantasy Beasts of the Southern Wild at Earlham College and Hidden Figures (movie version only) at William Paterson University. Dartmouth College asked students to contemplate José Clemente Orozco’s mural The Epic of American Civilization. Evergreen State College assigned episodes of the podcast “Trust Me.”
At first, one wonders why these made it into a report on common readings. But their inclusion registers the eagerness of colleges to shortchange academics for “community engagement.”
Increasingly, colleges treat common reading programs as common experience programs—a touchpoint for “community” and solidarity, not for the pursuit of truth or enjoyment of excellent prose. If the goal is merely to share something—anything—in common, why not leave the reading out of common reading?
NAS takes comfort in small improvements to college common reading assignments. In 2018, 38 institutions chose “classics” (older than 1980), compared to 24 in 2017. Frankenstein accounted for five of those, and many checked the “diversity” box: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, The Souls of Black Folk, and two of James Baldwin’s works, Sonny’s Blues and The Fire Next Time. But they remain serious works worth reading nonetheless.
And some institutions chose works from the canon of great books. Columbia assigned books 1-6 of The Iliad. Luther College in Iowa assigned The Odyssey and Hillsdale College The Nicomachean Ethics. The King’s College in Manhattan chose Macbeth and Ecclesiastes—but then announced the reading was recommended rather than required.
1980 is a generous cut-off for a classic, and 38 books is a tiny portion of the 518 assigned in 2018. Still, marginal gains are gains.
This is the ninth year NAS has surveyed common readings, and this year’s recommendations are the most granular and also the most easy-going. In the past, NAS has called on common reading programs to turn 180-degrees into rigorous academic programs. With the dissolution of the core curriculum, the common reading is often the only book all students will read, and thus it should introduce them to great thoughts and prose.
In the last two years, NAS has begun advocating more achievable, if less impressive, reforms. The previous issue of Beach Books urged colleges to “adopt the best existing practices of their peers” and highlighted the institutions that chose somewhat older, somewhat better-written books. This year NAS offers two new ideas for “working within system as it currently exists” in order to “forward useful if marginal, reforms.”
NAS now offers a helpful guide for faculty members who want to advocate a better book. Choose a classic with a local connection, written by a graduate, or written about the state or area where the college is. Or canvass faculty beforehand, assembling a list of professors who urge a particular classic they are eager to teach in class. Bill this as “buy-in” to the administrators.
Other bits of advice reflect either prudence or realpolitik. For instance, suggest a classic that has recently been made into a movie or TV series. Sure, some students will skip the book and go straight to the screen, but maybe some of them will read.
Or faculty might suggest “classics that overlap with progressive priorities,” such as Virginia Woolf’s Orlando to fill the transgender theme or John Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra for environmentalism. If a college is deadset on promoting a political vision through its common reading program, at least it can assign a decent book to do so, Beach Books suggests.
On the other hand, perhaps students might find themselves more allergic to political molding when they read and scoff at cheap literature, offering more forthright indoctrination. Classics offer plentiful opportunities for contemplation and discussion, to be sure—but also plentiful pithy quotes an eager advocate can twist to prop up his preferred social or political cause. This is especially true when, as common reading committees generally assume, few of the students have read the book, and most are studying only the excerpts and framing material put forward in the college’s discussion guide.
Beach Books’ second set of recommendations, eleven tips for writing a book that might get chosen as a common reading, settles on even lesser goals. Tip #1 is “write for common reading committees’ preferences” and enumerates the features of common reading staples: “‘timely’ progressive political themes, such as racial discrimination, illegal immigration, environmentalism, and transgenderism….nonfiction, memoirs, and novels…uplifting books with protagonists under 18 that promote collective activism…easy-to-read prose.”
Beach Books elsewhere critiques all of these features of common college readings, and its “general selection principles” for common readings directly contradict this advice to writers.
(The first selection principle is “Seek books that encapsulate intellectual diversity, not books that preach one message.”) Yet here Beach Books suggests that at least having a multiplicity of mediocre books is better than a handful of mediocre bestsellers. This sounds like diversity as colleges count diversity: external difference but intellectual conformity.
To be sure, NAS still recommends reach proposals like the reinstatement of a liberal arts core curriculum. It still publishes a list of recommended books, along with a justification of these books’ worthiness as common reading. It continues to call out the politicization of common reading programs and urge rigor.
But one fears that some institutions will settle for the low-hanging fruit now endorsed by Beach Books. Would common reading programs really be substantially better if they were dominated by early “classics” of the progressive tradition, each packaged in discussion guides and campus events meant to define the book by its most political features? Would it really matter if common readings featured 500 unique recent books on diversity, rather than a handful of especially popular ones?
This year, Lackawanna College assigned Gayle King’s New York Times bestseller Notes to Self: Inspiring Words from Inspiring People. It will, I believe, find its way into the next Beach Books report, where we’ll learn how many other institutions thought the inspiration worthy of college-wide reading. The “inspiring people” whose self-help King reproduces include Oprah and Kermit the Frog, along with Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and President Jimmy Carter.
Classic literature, of course, has no shortage of advice to youth, including from writers whose self-reflection transcends mere introspection. Take Augustine’s Confessions or Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations.
Colleges looking for inspirational life advice to help students make the most of college might consider John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.” How’s that for a common reading motto?