What colleges ask students to read

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.

About Joanne


  1. GoogleMaster says:

    Wow. Three of the four “classic” books suggested by Framingham were on our reading list for the summer before ninth and/or tenth grade.

    Wow again, and good for Bard! “From the start, the summer before the first year, Bard students confront the opportunity to develop the skills that our Founding Fathers wished the ideal citizen to have.” and “We have staked out a clear position against the conventional high school curriculum in the sense that we believe high school is not sufficiently rigorous and takes too long. Bard College at Simon’s Rock, which admits students after tenth grade, was the first so-called early college in the United States.”

  2. Richard Nieporent says:

    For my freshman orientation week at Columbia University we were asked to read The Two Cultures by C. P. Snow.

  3. I remember one year a few of my seniors were very excited that their summer read for college was One Hundred Years of Solitude because we’d already nailed that sucker in class. They already knew their Jose Aurelianos from their, well, Jose Aurelianos.

    My kids have already read Huck Finn, Frankenstein, Walden, etc. before they graduate — I don’t see why a college would assign books commonly read in high school as summer reading.

  4. I graduated from a small-town 1-12 school in the mid-60s and we did Huck Finn – and Tom Sawyer – in 5th or 6th grade, as I remember. There were less than 30 in my grade; everyone in same classes until HS and only 1-2 went to a 4-yr college (I didn’t know anyone who went anywhere other than the state university, which was good).

  5. Margaret says:

    LS – I suspect that the colleges require those books because many high schools aren’t teaching them anymore.

    I homeschool my kids, but I looked over the required summer reading list for the local middle and high schools. I was stunned to see books like the Twilight series (8th grade) and other fluffy stuff. Some picks I found very odd: The Prince of Tides, <The Nanny Diaries,. There were a few classics tossed into the mix though too: 1984,Jane Eyre.

  6. Mark S. says:

    I suggest your readers also read the following for a more balanced perspective: http://collegefreedom.blogspot.com/2010/06/scholars-on-beach.html

  7. Uh, the Communist Manifesto? Read with modern eyes the old Communist Manifesto is a total joke. Other than a lesson in how Communism was designed from the start to strip the proles of everything (a lesson much better taught from a history of the Soviet Union or Mao’s Great Leap Forward), what could this reading assignment possibly hope to achieve?

  8. St John’s Annapolis never seems to be counted in any of these studies, but there the freshman read The Iliad over the summer. The sophomore reading is (or used to be) The Aeneid, the juniors do Don Quixote and the seniors War and Peace (start by the end of July at least).

    I should probably post this over at Richard Whitmore’s site, but SJC is also an (apparently rare) example of a liberal arts college that still has a majority male student body (53%; it was about 56% when I was there in the 90s). Given all the hand-wringing about male disengagement from formal education, and especially the humanities, it would seem that someone might find these numbers interesting.

  9. Actually, I found Three Cups of Tea very inspiring. It may not be literature, but I think it’s good for self-absorbed teenagers to think beyond the minutiae of Facebook, IMing, and texting their friends to a wider community. There are bigger problems in the world than whether to be on “Team Edward” or “Team Jacob”, KWIM?

  10. Mark S., this is your idea of balanced?
    “Are conservative books excluded? The NAS doesn’t mention any contemporary conservative books they think deserve to be included. That’s probably because they’re aren’t any. Conservative intellectual life is dying….”

  11. Sigivald says:

    bringing authors to campus is a key part of the experience

    Huh. I managed to get a liberal arts degree without ever even noticing if an author visited my campus… and all my literature classes involved people who’d been dead for at least a century.

  12. Margaret: I see no evidence whatsoever that high schools are not teaching these books anymore.

  13. High Schools says:

    We confess.

    We aren’t teaching these books anymore.

    You can now enter our confession into evidence.

  14. SuperSub says:

    Mark S –
    You lost the whole point of the criticism by NAS. It was not that more conservative literature should be included, but that the literature should be chosen based upon its true literary quality as opposed to political slant or moral message.
    As for the defense of presentism, the schools argue that they wish to expand the horizons of the incoming students’ minds… how much expansion will occur if the books focus on topics that the students are already familiar with. I can’t turn on the TV without being exposed to the plight of Africans, the racism that blacks face, or the violence in the Middle East. The books are as mind-expanding as a drama centered around Facebook for these students.

  15. The Teachers’ College Reading and Writing Project, popular in elementary and middle schools in New York City, explicitly discourages the reading of classic texts by whole classes and at least implicitly encourages the reading of “fluff” in class, instructionally, and not just for pleasure. Many high schools are following suit. Colleges are therefore less and less able to expect that students have a familiarity with struggling through challenging texts from different places and times. Teachers of English who got into teaching English because they themselves loved many of these texts find the decision out of their hands.

  16. Richard Aubrey says:

    Miss Eyre,

    Suppose one of the teachers who loves the classics and is required to teach fluff handed out a list of recommended books, all classics, as suggestions for the interested student.
    I’d be interested in knowing what the admin would do, if anything.

  17. “how much expansion will occur if the books focus on topics that the students are already familiar with. I can’t turn on the TV without being exposed to the plight of Africans, the racism that blacks face, or the violence in the Middle East.

    But most college students are not watching news channels or PBS. They’re watching stupid reality shows on MTV. They are much more likely to be able to name all the kids on Jersey Shore than countries in the Middle East.

  18. SuperSub says:

    Crimson Wife –
    Ummm, MTV and the like is exactly where I see the specials on the plight of various groups. Remember, the only thing that such creative geniuses like Kanye West like to do more than drink and have sex with underage girls is to tell people with 1/100oth of their money that they need to sacrifice to help the poor souls elsewhere.

    I have 8th graders in a suburban school district who don’t understand that soldiers still rodes horses during the Civil War but can describe in detail the inequality experienced by a young Nigerian boy both before and after he immigrated to the US.

  19. Richard Aubrey says:

    Super. Just guessing here; the kid was worse off in the US, right?


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