A Classic Introduction to College

With the Fourth of July upon us, summer is in full swing. For freshmen entering the University of North Carolina (UNC), that means that many will soon be reading Covering, a book chosen to get them thinking about the oppressive pressure for conformity in the United States (odd in a country where, unlike much of the world, almost anything goes). For students at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, however, the summer reading will actually address issues of freedom and responsibility that are at the heart of the celebration of Independence Day.

Here in North Carolina, freshman books are chosen to challenge the complacent, consumerist worldview that faculty members consider their new charges to hold. Ever since 2002, UNC-Chapel Hill’s reading program in particular has stirred up storms of reaction. That year, with memories of September 11 still fresh, the university selected a book giving a rosy view of the Quran.

Others have included Blood Done Sign My Name about a racially inspired murder in North Carolina and Barbara Ehrenreich’s anti-market polemic Nickel and Dimed. The current book by Kenji Yoshino continues the relentless critique of American society.

But trendy efforts to undercut American society are not the universal agenda for summer reading. Last year, at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, students read two short classics. The apparent success of the program has led officials to choose the same ones again—and to assign a third as well. North Carolina could learn from the choices.

The first reading was Plato’s Apology, the speech by Socrates before the jury that ultimately sentenced him to death for his teachings. Socrates explains why he is willing to face death rather than give up his freedom to speak. The second was Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which he wrote when imprisoned for leading a non-violent protest against segregation. King argues that breaking unfair laws may be morally justified. (This year the additional reading will be Plato’s allegory of the cave from The Republic.)

The selections, about 35 pages for the Plato piece and about 23 pages for the King letter, come in a collection of readings distributed to all participating freshmen. The full collection (which the students do not have to read) includes, among other works, selections from Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and a speech by Frederick Douglass.

The reading and its discussions are a key element of a freshman seminar program at Colorado Springs, which begins two days before other classes start. The program is voluntary but about 80 per cent of the school’s freshmen participate.

Students also received a study guide titled “A Free Society and Its Challenges.” This guide gives practical advice: “Do not be misled by the number of pages into thinking you can properly do the assignment in a hurry”; “performing the work properly will help you develop intellectual skills that will contribute to your overall success.” It also gives background for both pieces, including a glossary of terms ranging from Aristophanes to “Bull” Connor.

The guide states that one of the goals of the readings and discussion is “to challenge you to join with the college community in addressing the question of what your responsibilities are as a citizen of a free society.”

Is this the kind of reading that students want? As might be expected, the picture is mixed. The main reaction from the students, said Constance Staley, director of the seminar program, was that they needed more time to discuss such “mega-issues” as freedom and responsibility. (This fall they will get it. The program will include a series of evening colloquia during the semester to explore the three readings further.)

But Jordan Verlare, now a sophomore, didn’t read the material (although he thinks most students did). He entered into the discussion anyway, but his group tired of it, he said. “We just didn’t find it relevant enough to spend a lot of time on it.”

Drew Castle, a student who led one of the many discussion groups, said that he was pleased and a little surprised that “the vast majority“ of the students in his group had read the selections and were able to discuss them. After some initial prompting, by Castle, “we went well over our two-hour time limit,” he said.

There may have been some unexpected benefits. Nina Ellis-Frischman, assistant director of the seminar program, said that the readings set a more “academic tone.” Usually, the first weekend kicks off the year with some violations of the underage drinking regulations. But last year, the first infraction occurred nearly two and a half weeks into the semester. The students, it appears, were thinking, not drinking. Perhaps there is a lesson in this for UNC?

Jane S. Shaw is president of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.