Choose Your Own Summer Reading Program

Recently, I explored the Carolina Summer Reading Program at UNC-Chapel Hill (including this year’s book choice), and found it to be lacking, at best. Some possible criticisms of the program are:

  • It is a voluntary program, not a requirement.
  • Students should have a choice of books to read and discuss each year.
  • It is for freshmen and transfer students only.
  • It has no writing requirement.
  • It tends toward political correctness and divisiveness.
  • The books change every year and are always very new publications, leading to a high likelihood of bad selections.

For example, one of the stated missions of the program is to create a common intellectual experience. This is very hard to do with a voluntary program, with a single, suspect book choice that is likely to bore, confuse, or offend a large number of students.

Yet, it’s one thing to criticize, and another to create alternatives. So we at the Pope Center have come up with some Summer Reading Programs of our own.

However, we want your input is well. We know you’re smart; we know you like to read. The number of potential programs is infinite, and we make no claims to knowing everything. We would love your ideas, comments and most of all, your own summer reading programs, and will publish any reasonable suggestions. Pick a theme, or just give us a list of your favorites. Choose the books you feel have been the most influential, or the books that offer the best guidance to young people. The Pope Center writers’ choices provide some examples. The rules are few, and mostly due to space limitations.

  1. Start with one or two paragraphs (roughly 150 words or less) that explain the overall mission of your reading program: what is the unifying theme, what the students should come away with after completing participation in the program, etc.
  2. Limit yourself to no more than five total book selections. That doesn’t mean you have to have five.
  3. For each book selection, give one or two sentences or semi-sentences describing why you chose that particular book.

Send your suggested summer reading programs to either Jane Shaw or Jay Schalin. We will publish your submitted programs on Friday, May 9.

Here are the summer reading programs suggested by Pope Center writers.

The Jane S. Shaw Summer Reading Program

These days, summer reading selections are not for the students. They’re meant to please faculty members who want to shake up the complacent, consumerist worldview of today’s teenagers, letting them know “reality.” For these faculty members, reality is all about victims, especially victims of racism, homophobia, and poverty.

Yet freshmen today are plenty aware of these problems. Instead, they need books that introduce college-level thinking that is contemplative, logical, and open to a range of perspectives.

In my view, the program should be mandatory, but for freshmen only. Discussions—or written analysis—should be incorporated into freshman composition or whatever course all students must take (if any). If the book can’t be part of a freshman course, then students should be required to participate in small-group discussions no larger than 15 students (and for residential students, dorm-based). Students can choose one out of several choices.

Here are three recommendations:

  • A Conflict of Visions by Thomas Sowell. This relatively short book argues that there are two fundamentally different ways of viewing the world. The vision we hold determines our attitudes and assumptions about most policy matters. Understanding this point will help students identify underlying philosophies for the rest of their lives.
  • Memoir on Pauperism by Alexis de Tocqueville. Since his magisterial Democracy in America is too long, why not read this extremely (short but insightful commentary based on his travels in England? It reveals that culturally similar nations (France and England) can have different characteristics because their institutions are different.
  • The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. In some circles, this has achieved the status of a classic, but it bears rereading to see if what she said is the same as the way she is interpreted.

With any of these, the summer will be intellectually elevating. And (except perhaps if Jane Jacobs’ book is chosen) there will be plenty of time for the swimming pool.

The Jenna Ashley Robinson Summer Reading Program

Most summer reading assignments at North Carolina schools have one thing in common: the extraordinary power of making students loathe reading. Good summer reading choices, as introductions to college-level thinking, should do the opposite: foster in students a lifelong love of reading and learning.

As the old adage goes, “Give a man a fish, you’ll feed him for a day; teach and man to fish and you’ll feed him for life.” So it goes for reading. If colleges and universities force students to read a dull or preachy tomes, it is unlikely that students will appreciate the beauty that can be found in books.

A more appropriate approach would require a summer reading assignment for all freshmen and transfer students, but allow them to choose between several options. Students who love to read, and continue to do so their whole lives, will learn far more than four years of courses could ever teach them.

Here are my recommended choices:

  • A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway. A young American serving in the Italian army suffers love and the loss of illusions as an ambulance driver in World War I.
  • The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. This winner of the 1921 Pulitzer Prize is Edith Wharton’s masterful portrait of desire and betrayal during the sumptuous Golden Age of Old New York, a time when society people “dreaded scandal more than disease.”
  • The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy. An ambitious young man, weary of the burden of his young wife and child, sells them both to a sailor at a county fair. As he moves through life trying to atone for that drunken mistake, he begins to worry that his past will catch up with him.
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. After an artist paints a beautiful, young man’s portrait, his subject’s frivolous wish that the picture change and he remain the same comes true. Dorian Gray’s picture grows aged and corrupt while he continues to appear fresh and innocent.
  • To Serve Them All My Days by R.F. Delderfield. A young Welshman returns to Great Britain shell-shocked from World War I and takes a post as a history professor at a boys’ school, healing from his psychological wounds as he guides another generation of British youth through adolescence just in time for WWII.

The Jay Schalin Summer Reading Program

The program should be mandatory –if only some students participate, how can it be a shared experience for all students?

To achieve the program’s full potential for developing a common view and sophisticated reasoning, it should include a (different) selection for each of the four years, not just for freshmen. The choices should be permanent to avoid the trendy and vapid tendencies of the Chapel Hill program, and they would also give every graduate of the school a common experience with graduates from other years.

I stuck to literature, since everybody likes a good story. But I decided not to be a pushover, either. I used a historical approach, to show some progression of Western intellectual life since the dawn of the modern era. And I tried to avoid books and themes students were likely to be exposed to in high school AP courses. For instance, there is almost no chance that students entering college today are not familiar with the issue and history of American slavery.

  • Freshmen Year: The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. It provides exposure to the type of devout, religion-based society that existed before the world-changing Enlightenment. Specifically, the severe English Protestantism that dominated in many of the American colonies. Also, a great reminder to incoming freshmen to keep their eyes on the prize and to not be distracted by knaves and fools you meet on the way.
  • Sophomore Year: Candide by Voltaire. A grand satirical romp through the best of all possible worlds offers a witty introduction to the can-do humanism of the Enlightenment.
  • Junior Year: The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The ultimate psychological novel, with more great themes and issues than you can you can stuff into an entire New York Times best seller list. And it offers a tremendous introductory contrast between the “tragic view” (the imperfectability of existence,) and the “utopian view.” Lots of mad Russians, too. (Okay, it’s a tome, and sometimes tough sledding. But they have all summer to read it. Or lots of it.)
  • Senior Year: The Bonfires of the Vanities by Tom Wolf. Finally, after we’ve spent three years learning something about the world, do we get to discuss current issues. The redemption of a fallen Master of the Universe in a post-moral, post-American urban landscape populated by all kinds of nasties.

The George Leef Summer Reading Program

We want to encourage young people to read books and take important messages from them. That isn’t easy to do since many of the students who enroll in college don’t read well, don’t like reading, and would rather have professors “Just tell us the main point,” as a student of mine said many years ago. Choosing books that will engage the greatest number of students is a difficult task. Here are four that I think should be considered.

  • 1984 by George Orwell. A lot of students have heard about this book; they ought to have to read it. The story will grab them and quite a few will grasp Orwell’s point about the dangers of government.
  • Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglass. Easy to read and students will learn a great deal about the importance of freedom.
  • The Odyssey by Homer. Humanity at its best and worst.
  • Civilization by Sir Kenneth Clark. A superb overview.