The Devolution of the University’s Common Reading
Hundreds of colleges and universities assign a “common reading” book to their students every summer – often for incoming or honors students, sometimes for the entire student body. They are usually meant to represent the school’s values and philosophies, and to foster dialogue amongst students for the remainder of the semester. But according to the National Association of Scholars’ latest report, “Beach Books 2012-2013: What Do Colleges and Universities Want Students to Read Outside of Class?” the reading program often falls short of excellence.
The report found that instead of old books, most chosen works corresponded to current events and cultural issues: environmentalism, bioethics, social justice, information technology, urban poverty, animal rights, the war in Iraq, etc. Out of 309 colleges, only four assigned books qualified as classics. Only nine books were published before 1990. Some would not see this as a problem; however, the report’s authors believe there is a wealth of scholarship purposefully excluded from most reading programs. “Colleges … choose easy, trendy books because they hope that this will induce students to read the book, or at least think favorably of it,” said report author Ashley Thorne in an email interview. “Instead, they could be challenging students to go beyond their comfort zones and raise their sights to books they will find difficult but rewarding. The problem is not that books with mass appeal are bad, but that books for common reading could be much better.”
Interestingly, the most common reading chosen for the 2012-2013 year was The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The book, published in 2010, centers around Lacks and controversy over her laboratory-cultured cervical cancer cells. The NAS report saw the book as a compilation of the institutions’ favorite genres:
If colleges were primarily moved by the goal of teaching students something about science, we would expect that other books about science would also have registered strongly in the list of choices. That, however, did not happen. Accordingly it is probably best to conclude that The Immortal Life owes its popularity not to being a book about science but to being a book about science whose subjects—the Lacks family—happen to be black and poor and furnished with a victimhood narrative. In short, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is popular because it puts a racial grievance spin on science.
NAS President Peter Wood believes the book is an indication of the “soft manipulation” that often goes on at the modern university. Instead of espousing classical literature, schools often turn studies into an opportunity for acculturation. The widespread ideology amongst America’s colleges strives to re-create students according to its own understanding of race, gender, and class theory.
Anthony Esolen, a literature professor at Providence College, sees such a classifying tendency amongst his fellow professors as well, and condemns it strongly:
It does violence to the man to reduce him to such categories. It is an act of contempt for his humanity. It reduces him, not so that we may get to know him, but so that we can manipulate facts about him while not getting to know him at all. It is a study in subhumanity. That is exactly what schoolteachers, professors, and critics do to John’s art when they cram it into the pigeonholes of race, class, and gender. It is an act of violence.
Thorne called for colleges to use common reading programs as an opportunity to grow students’ knowledge of “our intellectual heritage” through including more works of classic literature. NAS published their list of 50 recommended common reading books – replete with both famous and lesser-known works, with authors spanning from Plato to Tom Wolfe.
It seems doubtful that universities already succumbing to “soft manipulation” will stop when they offer Plato’s Republic on their reading list. Rather, any inherent sexism or elitism in the work will immediately be fleshed out in discussion. This is the reductionism that Esolen refers to in his article, and it cannot be stopped by a mere exchange of titles. No book, classic or no, can offer purely impartial alternative. However, by choosing a challenging and brilliant book, there is hope that even one reader will discover a morsel of truth that would otherwise have gone undiscovered.