Making Summer Reading Programs Matter

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of Clarion Calls dealing with summer reading programs. The first article was about the 2008 choice for the often-controversial Carolina Summer Reading Program at UNC-Chapel Hill. Today’s article concerns the program’s flaws and some suggestions about what a well-designed program really could offer. Then the fun starts. Members of the Pope Center staff will propose their own programs on April 25. Then it’s your turn-—we want your ideas as well. The grand prize is (drum roll please)–nothing! But we will publish your ideas on our site.

Once again, as I reported on Wednesday the Carolina Summer Reading Program has managed to make a dubious decision about which book to ask incoming freshmen and transfer students to read and discuss. It almost seems to be a Chapel Hill tradition. Over the years, the UNC system’s flagship school has selected a cheery promotion of an uncheery religion, (Islam), presented the market economy (which has raised living standards exponentially) in a dismal light, and promoted other books of a divisive nature. This year’s choice, Covering by Kenji Yoshino, very nearly suggests the coming of a modern-day Tower of Babel in America as a good thing.

At the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, we think a Summer Reading Program has great potential to enhance the college experience – far more than can be gained by the current program at Chapel Hill.

The UNC-Chapel Hill program, as it currently exists, is completely voluntary and only for first-time students. Students are also expected to participate in a two-hour discussion of the book led by members of the faculty and school administrators.

The stated mission of the program is to: “to provide a common experience for incoming students, to enhance participation in the intellectual life of the campus through stimulating discussion and critical thinking around a current topic, and to encourage a sense of community between students, faculty and staff” – laudable goals all.

It is hard to imagine how reading (or not reading) one book in the summer after high school is going to accomplish any of those goals. Indeed, given many of the choices, the only common experience likely to be shared by many UNC students is a shared lack of interest in reading the selections.

Jessica Kearns, a UNC junior asked about her experience as in incoming freshman, said she “did not participate because the book didn’t really interest me…in fact, I don’t believe any of my friends or those on my hall freshman year participated.”

Kearns is a journalism major, highly interested in current events and the political and social worlds. If she lacked the enthusiasm to read the selection for her year, (Blood Done Sign My Name, about an incident of racial conflict in North Carolina), one can only assume there was even more apathy about the book among computer science and chemistry majors.

A voluntary program is obviously problematic if the goal is to create a shared experience for all. The competition for students’ attention in summer is steep, and unless the book is a real page-turner, the percentage of students who don’t get past the first few pages is guaranteed to be quite high.

The program was originally mandatory. According to Mike McFarland, the school’s director of communications, that changed in 2002. He said the uproar caused by the choice of Approaching the Qur’án: The Early Revelations necessitated giving the option not to read it if “students or their parents found the book offensive to their own faith.” (Many critics argued that the book whitewashed the controversial aspects of Islam, such as Jihad, out of the Koran, a particularly sensitive subject in the aftermath of the 9-11-2001 attacks by Islamic terrorists).

That was also the final year that students were expected to write and turn in a one-page paper about the book. Elimination of the writing assignment further trivialized the program. Writing a paper, no matter how short, demands that students think deeply and organize their thoughts about what they have read. Participation in a large group discussion, while potentially valuable, requires less intellectual depth and rigor than writing about a subject.

Another major flaw of the program is that it is only for incoming freshmen and transfer students. A four-year program has many advantages over the one-year version. Making students participate every year would encourage them to engage with ideas at increasingly higher levels over the course of their entire college careers, just as their powers of reasoning, articulation, and understanding grow more sophisticated (or so we hope). It would also greatly add to the feelings of shared experience and intellectual communion on campus–if it is assumed this can be done in one year, then having students be involved for all four years will increase those feelings many-fold.

A four-year program can also be crafted to provide a broader range of experience. Each year could feature a different activity, in accordance with the students’ intellectual growth. For instance, the first year there could be a group discussion, the second year an informal paper, the third year a formal paper, and the final year could demand participation in a formal debate.

The Chapel Hill program is infamous for its reading selections. There is a tendency for the picks to be trendy and shallow, or politically skewed far to the left. For instance, the choice for 2003, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, is essentially an attack on capitalism written by the co-chair of the Democratic Socialists of America, Barbara Ehrenreich.

Two themes are common to many of the choices: tensions between races and cultures, and a sense that the mainstream in society is guilty of injustice toward some victim class. Viewed as a whole, the program seems to be an introduction to the kind of divisive victim-identity politics that is popular among the academic left.

Some might point to the 2004 selection, Absolutely American: Four Years at West Point, as a conservative choice that balances the more left-leaning choices. It should be noted, however, that the book is by Rolling Stone Magazine editor David Lipsky, and its viewpoint is better described as “centrist” rather than conservative.

Not all of the books are bad, taken individually. Transfer student and senior political science major Amanda Anderson, when asked about her experience, said she enjoyed reading The Namesake, the choice for 2006. It told the tale of an Indian family that immigrated to the United States, and of their difficulties straddling the two cultures. She added that she “found its message applicable to everyone on a personal journey struggling to find their own identity. It was fitting book for summer reading for college.”

This wide variance in book quality also illustrates another problem: by picking a different book every year, and by selecting only recent books, there is a greater probability of making bad choices. It is almost impossible to guess which new book is going to stand the test of time and be read in college classes thirty or fifty years from now. This problem could be eliminated by picking books that have already stood the test of time.

Sticking with same four books over a four year-span would give an added bonus, by making this facet of the university experience common for all graduates of that school, whether they graduate in 2012 or 2022. In this way, the school can impose a stamp, or brand, of shared intellectual quality on all of its graduates, in all majors.

Perhaps the program’s most fundamental flaw is that it seems to lack seriousness. If it is truly important, students should not be able to blow it off so easily. If it is not that important, why bother at all? If incoming freshmen can benefit, wouldn’t it make sense to continue the program as students progress intellectually? And even the best choices in vogue among college summer reading programs, such as the 2006 selection at Duke University, The Kite Runner, seem to lack the weight, universality and timelessness of the classics.

A better program would also spell out what the school is trying to accomplish. Such as, to give students a minimal understanding of our American heritage, or to acquaint students with certain (specified) universal themes.

More and more colleges are adopting summer reading programs, but most resemble Carolina’s. These schools (Carolina especially) are missing out on a golden opportunity to build a tradition of quality, and a way to make the educational experience more meaningful with only a small additional investment in time and effort.