Conservatives criticize UNC-Chapel Hill reading program again

RALEIGH – Conservatives students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are criticizing the Summer Reading Program again. The surprise is that this year, the program’s selection, made for the first time with an open selections process, was expected to avoid the sort of criticism previous selections endured.

This year’s choice, Absolutely American: Four Years at West Point by David Lipsky, certainly lacks the overtly political agenda of socialist scold Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America and the religious patina of Michael Sells’ Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations. The assumption was that the book, if it had any politics at all (Lipsky says the book isn’t political), could be construed as conservative. Nevertheless, the cover of the Summer 2004 issue of Carolina Review, the student-run conservative publication at UNC-CH, proclaims that, with it choice of Absolutely American, the Summer Reading Program is “Still Not Living Up to Its Purpose.”

Not all conservative students share Carolina Review‘s perspective. When the selection of Absolutely American was announced in the spring, Michael McKnight, head of the Committee for a Better Carolina, which took the lead in criticizing Nickel and Dimed, praised the book. He also praised the nine-member committee for its openness.

In the Review, publisher Steve Russell wrote that “while Absolutely American looks like an interesting read, it fails to further the goal of improving the intellectual climate. Quite frankly, it is not an intellectual exercise, but rather one designed to spark the same kinds of discussions you hear on talk radio,” Russell explained. “This is not the level of intellectual discourse that should occupy a university.”

Russell criticized the program for “ignor[ing] the fact that an intellectual exercise should be just that, and intellectual exercise,” which “should introduce students to the best of knowledge and should challenge those students.” Thus, he wrote that while it is “valuable” to look at the culture of the American military, the Lipsky book “does not reach into the reader’s soul or truly challenge the reader to think about truth or about beauty.”

Russell does not, however, give details on how to introduce students to the challenging best of knowledge. He wrote that it would not mean requiring incoming students to read Plato or Aristotle, Shakespeare, or other greats. He added, however, that “it wouldn’t hurt” for them to study “the primary sources of our intellectual tradition.”

Absolutely American “opens up a lot of discussions for students to think about their own lives at college and what they want to accomplish,’ committee chair Jan Bardsley, an assistant professor of Asian studies and chair of the Summer Reading Program committee, said when the Summer Reading Program Committee announced its selection this spring. “While the experiences of UNC students and West Point cadets are different, our committee felt that the descriptions in Absolutely American would be an appropriate springboard for exploring a wide range of timely topics in the discussion sessions for our new students.”

The web page from the Summer Reading Program lists several topics for discussions. They include:

• “Absolutely American provides a glimpse into what motivates the cadets to commit to four years at West Point. How do their motivations change and develop during their years at West Point? Why have you chosen Carolina, and what have you come here to achieve?”

• “What is missing from Lipsky’s book that we need to know in order to understand a West Point education? How does living with the cadets affect his point of view? What criticisms do you have of the book or the way it is written?”

• “The epilogue of Absolutely American takes the reader beyond the training of military officers and into military careers and the fields of war. What do you learn about life as a soldier or about military careers from the epilogue? What else would you like to know about the life of a soldier or a military leader after reading this book?”

• “Do you have friends or relatives who have served in the military? Have you ever considered military or other civic service? Did the book change your view of those that choose to serve in the military? If so, how?”

• “Author David Lipsky explains how student honor codes emerged as a strategy for containing student rowdiness at schools such as West Point, Princeton, and UNC-Chapel Hill. How do you understand the function of Carolina’s Honor Code now?”

• “West Point cadets commit to five years of military service after graduation. How might graduates of UNC-Chapel Hill, a public institution, give back to the state of North Carolina? What does citizenship or civic duty mean to you? Should all young people be required to commit to a period of public service?”

• “The title ‘[A]bsolutely American’ comes from the quote by President Theodore Roosevelt (given on the face page of the book) in which he describes West Point in 1902. What does it mean to be ‘absolutely American’ today?”

Despite criticizing the book, Carolina Review had praise for the Summer Reading Program’s guidelines for people who would lead the discussions over Absolutely American. Staff writer Matthew Pulley wrote that the guidelines are “surprisingly comprehensive and clearly state that teachers exist in the classroom to promote discussion instead of dictate to their students what right and wrong thoughts are.”

Jon Sanders ( is a policy analyst for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh.