College Summer Reading Can Be Useful – Or Not

Many colleges and universities these days have a “summer reading” program for incoming students, which requires them to read a book and be prepared to discuss it during the first few days of class. The programs are designed to create a common ground among new students, challenge them to think critically about new ideas and introduce them to university work and intellectual life at a university.

This is a splendid idea. Done well, such reading programs can help to get college students off to a good start by concentrating their minds on the nature of and reasons for academic study.

Unfortunately, if it is done poorly this becomes at least a missed opportunity. If a school chooses a book that has no timeless message, it will fail to make any lasting impression on the students. And if a school selects a book that is faddish or polemical, it is worse than a missed opportunity. It conveys to the students the idea that college is more about what to think than about how to think. Sadly, at some institutions that happens to be the case in many of the courses taught, but still it’s best to start freshmen off with a good impression.

The list of books chosen by many North Carolina schools can be found in the adjoining column. Many of those books are of dubious value for the purpose of getting incoming freshmen to see what higher education should be about.

Elon’s Common Reading program is designed to challenge “students, faculty, and staff to examine themselves and the local and global worlds they inhabit through reading. The readings and discussions aim not only to encourage critical reflection about important issues but also to invite personal consideration of how our individual actions affect these issues.” But the book Elon has chosen, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, is nothing but a shallow polemic that even scientists who believe that human activity is responsible for climate change have panned. It’s scarcely even a “book” at all, but more of a collection of pictures, graphs, and power-point slides.

Furthermore, Gore’s book makes no attempt at objective, scholarly inquiry, failing to acknowledge that reasonable and well-informed people have come to different conclusions about climate change. Perhaps the most important thing students can learn from college is how serious intellectual debates are conducted. Nothing could be further from a model of that than An Inconvenient Truth.

Many of this year’s summer reading choices introduce incoming freshmen to the pervasive race/class/gender lens through which professors today so often view the world. A Home on the Field by Paul Cuadros, The Best of Enemies by Osha Gray Davidson, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs and Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller all focus on race or ethnicity. The notion that most social phenomena (and nearly all of America’s problems) can be explained by racism, sexism, classism, and so on is one that most students will repeatedly encounter in their courses in the humanities and social sciences. There isn’t any benefit in leading off with a dose of it.

UNC-Greensboro’s summer reading program, with the choice of six books, allows students to choose among many options ensures that students read something in which they are interested and are able to discuss the work with like-minded students. Unfortunately, none of the books offer both academic rigor and engaging content. Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, the graphic novel of a young girl’s life in Iran, is a compelling story, but fails to introduce students to university-level work.

North Carolina State’s summer reading choice, The Colors of the Mountain, an autobiography of life in China under communism seems more insightful. Administrators chose the book because it addresses many of the questions that incoming students have thought about: “What do students get from a college education? What’s truly valuable? What do I hope to make of my life?” The book’s author, Da Chen will be the guest speaker at NC State’s Wolfpack Welcome Week Convocation Festival.

A common thread among the choices for summer reading is that the books are quite recent. Perhaps it would be wise for the people who make the selections to cast a wider net, considering books that are not new but have stood the test of time.

As a college freshman back in 1969, the senior of the two authors was assigned to read The Educated Imagination by Northrop Frye. It had nothing to do with current events or socio-economic problems. Rather, the book was about literature and literary criticism. Frye sought to explain why is literature important and to show that reading great fiction can expand our imaginations, enabling us to see the world from new vantage points.

Another book that some colleges and universities have in the past chosen as their summer reading is How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren. First published in 1940, this is something of a “living classic.” It explains what reading is really about and how to get the most out of it. That’s something students need now more than ever.

A partial list of summer reading offerings across North Carolina can be found here.