NEWS: What Books are College Students Reading? A Cool New Online Tool Reveals All

The following article first appeared in The National Book Review

For decades now, universities have been caught up in the "canon wars" -- battles over what students should be reading on their path to a liberal education. While this debate has raged -- with the classicists squaring off against the multi-culturalists, the traditionalists against the modernists -- there has not been a lot of actual data.

That is now changing -- thanks to a new online tool, the Open Syllabus Explorer, which ranks all of the books students are assigned in college, from #1 -- traditionalists can rejoice, it's Strunk & White's The Elements of Style -- on down.

In fact, traditionalists will likely be pleased with most, if not all of the top 10, which includes Plato's Republic, Aristotle's Ethics, Hobbes's Leviathan, and Hamlet. There are a few radicals and outsiders banging on the gates of traditionalism, though, including Marx's The Communist Manifesto (#4) and Edward Said's Orientalism (#12).

The Washington Post today did its own riff on the list -- which incorporates about one million college courses -- by separating out books assigned in Ivy League schools. The Ivy League has a somewhat different top 10. Samuel Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations, Martin Luther King'Jr.s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, and John Rawls's A Theory of Justice are all on the Ivy League list, but not the general one.

The tool is a lot of fun to play around with -- you can search by college or university, by state, or by academic field. Or type in the name of a book, and see how often it has been assigned. We can imagine the tool's website being kept plenty busy just with authors searching for their own books . . .

You can find the Open Syllabus Explorer here.