A growing number of American colleges, including elite institutions such as Dartmouth and Smith, give their new students a summer reading assignment. This year, the most popular assigned book is This I Believe, an anthology of personal manifestos drawn from the National Public Radio series. Eleven colleges assigned This I Believe to their freshmen. The runner-up, assigned by ten colleges, is Enrique's Journey by Los Angeles Times journalist Sonia Nazario, which recounts the travails of a Honduran boy stealing illegally into the United States.
Book assignments like these say a lot about the state of American higher education. In our new study for the National Association of Scholars, Ashley Thorne and I found 290 colleges in the U.S. with "common reading" programs making use of 180 different books. Many extend their book assignment to upperclassmen and faculty too. Almost all of the colleges explain what they are doing in the same way. In the words of Florida Southern College, its program aims at "a shared intellectual experience for all members of the community, promoting campus-wide dialogue."
Those are surely worthy goals, although it gives us a little pause to think that colleges may be reduced to relying on a single assigned book to achieve them. One might have thought that college itself provides a "shared intellectual experience" and that "campus-wide dialogue" occurs whenever an issue warrants it. This raises a question: What has prompted so many colleges to try the expedient of special extra-curricular book assignments as a way to achieve "shared intellectual experience"? We haven't checked every case to see what else the colleges do to foster intellectual community, but we have found that colleges that have core curricula generally don't opt for the summer reading approach.
Summer reading programs are a half-step for colleges that feel an obligation to provide a kind of well-rounded liberal education but that shy from imposing requirements that would weigh heavily on students or faculty. An important clue to the phenomenon is that 40 percent of the colleges that make these assignments are listed on U.S. News & World Report's two top 100 lists: top national universities and top liberal arts colleges. Common reading programs don't crop up just anywhere. Most of the institutions are selective about whom they admit, and all of them make strenuous claims about education being more than job training or just soaking up information.
These summer reading programs seem to be a good barometer of the aspirational character of the colleges. They announce that the college takes seriously the need to enrich students' minds and that learning to talk about books and ideas with fellow aspirants is indispensable. So far so good. But the creation of these extra-curricular reading programs also betrays some deep worries on the part of the colleges.
The programs are founded on the recognition that a substantial portion of the students admitted to very good colleges arrives on campus with scant knowledge of good books. What they have read in high school is hit or miss. A college professor can't mention Leaves of Grass or even Catcher in the Rye with confidence that most students will get it. The common cultural literacy of today's freshmen extends not much further than Lost, Lady Gaga, and the Lakers.
The American high school curriculum has been so dumbed-down, fragmented, and pitched to succeed on No Child Left Behind-driven standardized tests that colleges find themselves in a difficult spot. They can, of course, choose to continue the fragmentation by hustling the students into invent-your-own program arrangements and silo-style specializations. Alternatively, they can bite the bullet and reestablish some version of the core curriculum in which students spend two years or more marching side by side through the same books.
The extra-curricular summer book is the third way of accommodating the cultural anomie of American teenagers. Unlike a core curriculum, it doesn't attempt to repair the damage already done by desultory high school programs. Rather, it takes a "begin here" approach. If the students have nothing -- or least nothing reliable -- in common at the intellectual level, the summer book will show them what it looks and feels like to be welcomed into a literate conversation.
The rhetoric surrounding these programs is relentlessly positive, but it is hard to disguise that they are founded in a fairly bleak assessment of the educational situation. The programs are, in effect, confessions that high school didn't do its job and that college isn't going to do it either -- but here's a glimpse of what a genuine collegiate community might look like.
The positive rhetoric almost always extends to the college's choice of books. When Bowling Green State University assigned This I Believe for freshmen to read by August 23, it touted the book of "short and inspiring essays" as "something for everyone" and an invitation to readers "to think about what it is they believe in." When Fort Lewis College assigned Enrique's Journey, it avowed that the book provides "no clear answers to the immigration puzzle," but "puts a human face on this complex American story and helps us see its immense complexity."
I wouldn't disagree with such claims. This I Believe and Enrique's Journey are highly readable, often moving, and touch in various ways on real contemporary problems. But that is about it. Bowling Green and Fort Lewis have decided that an anthology or personal testimonials and a journalist's reconstruction of a boy sneaking into the U.S. are about as much "shared intellectual experience" as the market will bear.
They aren't alone. The 290 colleges that have adopted extra-curricular common readings have, with only a handful of exceptions, settled for pretty lightweight reading. Don't go scanning our list for Homer or Sophocles; Shakespeare has taken the summer off; Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau are on sabbatical; of the crowd of American greats -- Hawthorne, Melville, Emerson, Whitman, James, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, etc. -- only Twain had time for an appearance. Two colleges -- St. Mary's in Maryland and Le Moyne, a Jesuit college in Syracuse -- picked Huckleberry Finn.
Our primary finding was this general mismatch between the lofty goals of the program and the thinness and sometimes triviality of the assigned books. If you are limited to just one book as the shared intellectual experience of your college years, would it be This I Believe or Enrique's Journey? Or, for that matter, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (9 colleges), The Omivore's Dilemma (7 colleges), or Outcasts United (6 colleges). The biography of the woman whose cancer cells became a lab standard, a screed against industrial agriculture, and an account of a soccer team in Georgia made up of refugees are each interesting in their own ways, but rather hard to construe as foundational texts.
As we pored over the data, a lot of interesting patterns emerged. We can't explain them all. Why are colleges that picked This I Believe concentrated in the upper Midwest? We don't know, but eight of the eleven are. Other patterns, unfortunately, are all too easy to explain. Of the 180 books selected, 126 (70 percent) either explicitly promote liberal causes or advance a liberal interpretation of events. Students get their one foundational common reading by perusing the pages of books such as the environmentalist memoir, No Impact Man (the author lives a year without toilet paper). Nine colleges picked books about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Sixty selected a book that was primarily about multiculturalism, immigration, or racism.
We weren't looking for these patterns but they were hard to avoid. The only serious work of philosophy on the list was The Communist Manifesto (University of Indiana, South Bend). There was not a single book that could plausibly be said to advocate conservative political views, though there were dozens on the other side of the political spectrum. As for cultural values, we found three small sectarian colleges that chose Christian-themed books, but over two hundred colleges that picked books rooted in alienation from traditional Western values.
While I am tempted to say this cultural imbalance was our biggest discovery, I doubt that anyone would be really surprised by it. Still, 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.
Despite our reservations on the way these programs have worked out so far, we believe that common readings should continue. We'd prefer to see colleges and universities adopt core curricula of some sort, but common readings are a start. And it wouldn't be hard to improve them. As it stands, all of European literature is represented by a single book, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, assigned by one college, Texas Tech. I trust the reader can think of a few other candidates that might summon a little more effort and perhaps a little more reward for the students.
Common readings are a chance to introduce students to the larger conversations of our civilization. That shouldn't be a liberal or conservative matter, but an educational one. It should get across the idea that important books may be difficult and require some slow and patient reading. College shouldn't be confined to quick impressions, entertaining stories, snappy ideas, or empathetic evocations of misfortune. Those belong as part of the picture of humanity; but if we are going to introduce college students to the larger intellectual world, Enrique's Journey won't get us there. This I believe.