Many colleges assign summer reading to new students so they’ll have a book to discuss during freshman orientation. But these “Beach Books” (pdf) tend to be “unchallenging, heavily pitched to themes of alienation and oppression, and overwhelmingly reflect liberal themes and the sensibilities of the academic left,” concludes a study by the National Association of Scholars, which forms the academic right. Minding the Campus summarizes:
The selections are mostly books published in the last decade and “generally pitched at an intellectual level well below what should be expected of college freshmen…. It is hard to find anything on the list that poses even a modest intellectual challenge to the average reader.” The chosen books tend to be “short, caffeinated and emotional” and seem grounded on the premises of Oprah’s Book Club.
The most popular book at the moment is a collection of essays, This I Believe, followed by Enrique’s Journey (Honduran boy travels to the U.S. to be with his mother) and Three Cups of Tea (philanthropist builds schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan). NAS found only four “classic” books: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.
Many books fall in the multiculturalism/immigration/racism category (60 colleges), followed by environmentalism/animal rights/food (36), the Islamic world (27), new age/spiritual philosophy (25) and holocaust/genocide/war/disaster (25). Seventy percent of the books lean liberal, according to NAS, while 28 percent are neutral and 2 percent conservative. Books on Africa outnumber books on Europe by nearly six to one.
College officials say their goal is to create a sense of community, reports Inside Higher Ed. Several added that “bringing authors to campus is a key part of the experience — and one that requires the writers to be alive.”
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.”
Summer reading is used to signal the college’s “aspirations and to help shape students’ initial impressions,” writes Leon Botstein, president of Bard, on Minding the Campus. Bard asks first-year students to read Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and the Natural Selection chapter of Darwin’s Origin of the Species to show “an idealism about the task of learning, and the satisfaction that comes from a rigorous engagement in interpretation, analysis, and the formulation of one’s own considered opinions.”
Colleges must counter the experience of conventional high school education in the United States, where learning is little more than a standardized test-driven chore with utilitarian benefits. In college, students should discover that most of the important writings and discoveries they will study were not generated for their benefit, but rather came into being in order to illuminate and improve life. It is precisely the connection between learning and living that justifies the life of the mind and makes study and inquiry a treasured form of human activity and among the most rewarding.
Of course, Bard allocates three weeks to discussing reading and writing before the start of the fall semester. Most colleges have a three-day orientation.
When my daughter started at Stanford, the book was John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat. She suspected it was chosen because it’s so short.