Taking Back America By Taking Back Our Schools
"The only work of social theory written earlier than the last decade is The Communist Manifesto."
A growing number of American universities, including 79 of U.S. News & World Report's top 100 list, ask incoming freshman to read one book over the summer. The purpose, as expressed by Florida Southern College, is to promote "a shared intellectual experience" and "campus-wide dialogue." Kalamazoo College says its summer common reading program "is an important first step in building a cohesive, dynamic, educational community."
While praising the stated goals of common reading programs, the National Association of Scholars (NAS) found some troubling trends in an examination of the 180 books selected by the 290 schools with active programs. The primary critique offered in the report is that books are more suited to Oprah's Book Club selections than institutions that purport to help students develop higher levels of intellectual engagement.
"Rather than asking students to stretch to the demands of college-level study, they shrink college-level study to the comfort zone of the average student" said study authors Ashley Thorne and NAS president Peter W. Wood. Overall, the book selections "tend to be short, caffeinated, and emotional."
For example, this year's most popular book is This I Believe, a collection of essays on personal philosophies solicited by National Public Radio, which was assigned by eleven colleges. The second most assigned book, chosen by eleven schools, is Enrique's Journey, an account of an illegal immigrant youth's journey from Honduras to the United States by LA Times journalist Sonia Nazario. While both books "undoubtedly contain moving and interesting stories," said Thorne, they offer "little if any intellectual substance."
The report, Beach Books: What Do Colleges Want Students to Read Outside of Class? also noted that 70% of the books "promote a liberal political agenda or advance a liberal interpretation of events." By contrast, no selected books advocated conservative political causes. Only three books represented traditional values, and those were selected by private sectarian colleges. Twenty-seven of the 33 sectarian colleges picked books reflecting the same liberal political outlook apparent in secular institution choices.
Wood doesn't expect most people will find the preponderance of books promoting the liberal political causes du jour surprising. "But," he said, "whatever your politics, it is disappointing to see colleges and universities relaxing into their biases. Students will soon enough learn that their colleges are gung-ho for 'sustainability' and that identity politics trumps reason in most classrooms. They don't need to be spoon-fed this stuff before they even unpack the SUV and meet their roommates."
Thorne and Wood say they began their work with no preconceived categories, but looked for sensible ways to reflect the proclivities of selection committees. The most popular topics related to multiculturalism, immigration and racism, with 60 colleges choosing books with those themes. Environmentalism, animal rights and food issues proved to be the second most popular themes, with 36 picks (seven colleges chose The Omnivore's Dilemma). Other popular categories included the Islamic world (27 colleges), New Age/spiritual/philosophy (25 colleges) and holocaust, genocide, war and disaster titles (25 colleges). On the whole, the report observed, the books "offer a distinctly disaffected view of American society and Western civilization."
Also illuminating, says the report, is what kinds of books didn't make the cut. There were no works of classical antiquity, and none by Shakespeare or any other Renaissance or Enlightenment writers. Mark Twain is the only acknowledged master of American literature represented, and no classical works of Christian or Jewish thought, science, or history were selected. The only work of social theory written earlier than the last decade is The Communist Manifesto. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is the sole representative of all European literature, from Homer to Dostoevsky. These last two titles comprise half of the only four books that were written before the 20th century.
Three institutions that had common reading programs in 2009 have kept the "common" experience, but ditched books in favor of other mediums in 2010. Fairfield University is asking students to watch a DVD, RFK in the Land of Apartheid; University of San Francisco is having students "read" a mural by Diego Rivera; and the University of California at Berkeley is asking students to submit DNA samples on a voluntary basis to test for lactose tolerance and alcohol metabolism. Nine colleges didn't totally abandon the printed page, but selected less challenging comic books, also called "graphic novels."
The predominant and most serious problem, according to Wood, is that colleges are missing a chance to introduce students to the larger conversations of civilization. Instead of setting the tone for serious intellectual inquiry and conveying the idea that important books may be difficult and require slow and careful reading, colleges are opting for choices that give the same sort of "quick impressions, entertaining stories, snappy ideas, or empathetic evocations of misfortune" with which students are already saturated. (Huffington Post, 6-6-10)