What Freshmen Will Read

College orientation programs don't yet have the power of Oprah's Book Club, but they increasingly feature books that students are asked to read over the summer or during their first week on campus -- and to discuss with their new classmates. The idea is that having every freshman read the same book builds a sense of common experience and adds intellectual content to a week that can easily be consumed by learning a college bureaucracy and socializing.

June 4, 2010

College orientation programs don't yet have the power of Oprah's Book Club, but they increasingly feature books that students are asked to read over the summer or during their first week on campus -- and to discuss with their new classmates. The idea is that having every freshman read the same book builds a sense of common experience and adds intellectual content to a week that can easily be consumed by learning a college bureaucracy and socializing.

Some book selections have been controversial. In 2002, critics tried to block the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill from a first-year program built around Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations, but the university went to court to defend its choice -- only to face more criticism the next year over the selection of Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. But despite such debates, the book concept has taken hold on many campuses.

On Thursday, the National Association of Scholars -- a group that advocates for a more rigorous and traditional college curriculum -- released what it says is the most comprehensive analysis of what freshmen are being asked to read. The findings suggest that certain kinds of books -- on multiculturalism and the environment -- dominate these reading selections. And the study, called "Beach Books," questions whether the choices of colleges are too similar, too left-leaning and not sufficiently challenging.

Officials of several of the colleges whose selections fit the pattern the association is criticizing don't dispute the study's findings about trends in the books that get chosen. But they say that the genres that are popular aren't picked for politics, but for the way they connect with large numbers of students -- and that the association is confusing the purposes of reading books in class and (as is the case for orientation book programs) out of class.

What the Freshmen Will Read

What are the freshmen reading? Based on the report's analysis of 290 programs (excluding books that are required parts of courses), the top books this year are This I Believe (an essay collection assigned at 11 colleges), followed by Enrique's Journey (the story of a Honduran boy's struggle to reach his mother in the United States, assigned at 10 colleges) and two books assigned at 9 colleges each, Three Cups of Tea (about building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan) and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (about a poor woman who worked on a tobacco farm whose cells were used, without her knowledge, for research).

These books reflect some of the trends found in "Beach Books" about the genres of choice. Books about multiculturalism, immigration or racism were the most prevalent (60 colleges), followed by environmental issues (36 colleges), the Islamic world (27 colleges), New Age or spiritual books (25 colleges), and issues related to the Holocaust or genocide (25 colleges). Only 6 colleges assigned classics. The study also looked for other patterns in the selections, and reported that 46 of the choices have a film version, 29 are about Africa, 9 are related to Hurricane Katrina and 5 are about dysfunctional families.

The report cites several issues with the selections. "We found the preponderance of reading assignments promotes liberal social causes and liberal sensibilities. Of the 180 books, 126 (70 percent) either explicitly promote a liberal political agenda or advance a liberal interpretation of events. By contrast, the study identifies only three books (less than 2 percent) that promote a conservative sensibility and none that promote conservative political causes."

Moving beyond ideology, the report says that "the books selected for common reading are generally pitched at an intellectual level well below what should be expected of college freshmen. Common reading programs are, in their inception, an attempt to make up for some of the misshapenness of American secondary education -- especially its lack of consistent focus from school to school on books that define our cultural heritage and its failure to insist on high standards."

While one response to this problem might be for colleges to institute a core curriculum, common reading programs "are, in effect, a short-cut core curriculum," the association says. "They attempt to ensure that students have at least one worthwhile book in common before embarking on a curriculum that quickly separates students into disparate paths of study.

"Can one book really serve as the common foundation of a college education? Perhaps it depends on the book. Homer’s Iliad served a function not unlike that for classical Greece; the Bible was long the foundation for teaching in the Western world. But the common reading programs of today are not modeled on the Greek ideal of Paideia or the Christian conception of Scripture. Rather, common reading as practiced by American colleges seems to be grounded on something more like the idea of Oprah’s Book Club."

Further, the study questions why so few colleges teach "classic works" and anything written before the 20th century. Only four books identified in the survey fit those categories: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. "This is a very meager haul for the common reading programs, and of the four only Walden and Huckleberry Finn really have standing as works that every educated American should read," the report says. "While we are glad to see the inclusion of at least a few classic books, these four are not very challenging texts."

Peter Wood, president of the association, stressed that the association supports the common reading programs, but wants them out of "the rut of promoting trendy causes," adding that something is wrong when "books on Africa outnumber books on Europe nearly six to one.” (This year's biggest controversy over an orientation program involves the University of California at Berkeley, which is asking new students for some of their DNA, rather than reading a book, and to consider the issues raised by genetics. Wood said that he wasn't worried about the privacy issues that some have raised about the experiment, but he said it was "an interesting oddity" and "a bit of campus theatrics," not a substantive improvement on reading.)

The report offers a series of recommendations on how colleges might improve on their selection process, including more consideration of non-contemporary or non-political works. "Alienation and oppression are important themes but so are courage, fidelity, redemption, self-sacrifice, fellowship, and truth, among others," the study says.

The View From Campuses

At the colleges that have selected the kinds of books that the study finds are popular, officials said that their approach works well -- and that the National Association of Scholars and other critics have confused the idea behind the programs. Several noted, for example, that one reason they don't look for authors from the 19th century (or earlier) is that bringing authors to campus is a key part of the experience -- and one that requires the writers to be alive.

Mabel G. Freeman, assistant vice president for undergraduate admissions and the first year experience at Ohio State University, said that students have embraced the books the association report criticizes. Last year's selection was Three Cups of Tea and there was so much interest in the visit by the author, Greg Mortenson, that he was asked to stay an extra day. If last year's selection would fit two categories that the association says are common (multiculturalism and Islam), this year's selection would fit in the environmental section. The book is No Impact Man, about how individuals can minimize or eliminate their carbon impact.

Freeman said that the program's goal isn't about great books, and that this doesn't mean any lack of respect for that kind of education. "We assume that students in their course work have the opportunity to pursue what would be thought of as the classics by the NAS," she said. "What we are trying to do is create a sense of community."

As to politics, she said, "in the world we live in today, any group can turn almost anything into a political issue." But noting that "we're sitting in the middle of Ohio, we are a large public university and we have middle-of-the-road students," she said the books aren't really viewed as political, but as dealing with current events. "I don't think any of our books have turned heads politically. That's not the goal."

To the extent she has seen students inspired, she said that many students responded to Three Cups of Tea -- about building schools -- by getting involved with local elementary schools. "I thought that was great," she said.

Shannan Mattiace, associate professor of political science at Allegheny College, said that she also viewed the NAS report as not understanding the purpose behind the programs. Allegheny is included in the report for its selection of Enrique's Journey, although that book at Allegheny is part of a year-long theme of "global citizenship" that is for all students, not just those who are new on campus.

Mattiace, who chairs the faculty committee that works on programs for the theme, acknowledged that it would be hard to read that book without feeling sympathy for the immigrant family at its center. But she said it was also the case that this "is not an ideologically charged book, this is not railing against the U.S. government, but is a striking narrative, a real story that doesn't enter the realm of policy."

Contemporary issues and accessible books are key to the program's purposes, she said. "We're asking students to read outside of class," she said. "If we were giving a book that requires a professor to guide students' thought, we would do it in class. It's not like we aren't teaching classic texts in our classes."

Likewise, others said that there were a range of reasons (and not just political) for books focused on diversity. At Framingham State College, this year's selection is Brother, I'm Dying (about a family from Haiti) and last year's was Children of Jihad: A Young American's Travels Among the Youth of the Middle East.

Ben Trapanick, director of first year programs, said that "one of our goals is to help students become more aware of their participation in an overall community" and that one way to encourage that realization "is to make students aware of the wide-ranging definition of diversity in the world."


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