It’s Summer Time and the Reading Is Easy

Imagine that you are in school taking a multiple choice test. Which one of the following is not like the others: Nickel and Dimed, An Inconvenient Truth, Approaching the Qur’an, The Oresteia.

The answer: The Oresteia. The first three books are recent selections for North Carolina universities as summer reading for incoming freshmen. The Oresteia, a trilogy of tragedies by the Greek playwright Aeschylus, was a summer reading for an Advanced Placement class at a Charlotte high school.

The lesson: Instead of choosing books based on literary merit, the presence of universal themes, or as a taste of the rigorous academic experience that awaits them, North Carolina universities choose best-sellers, political rants, or books that view every human event through the lens of race, class, gender, or sexual orientation. Summer reading in high school advanced placement courses is more demanding and more meaningful.

Consider the university choices mentioned above.

Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, the Chapel Hill choice in 2003, was an ill-concealed assault on American institutions. Ehrenreich concludes that corporate America makes it impossible for the working poor to obtain a “sustainable lifestyle.” The highly controversial 2002 choice at UNC-CH, Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations attempted to whitewash Islam’s violent image in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks less than a year earlier. Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, selected in recent years by Elon University and Meredith College, is little more than a collection of pictures, graphs, and power-point slides, more suited to middle school than the first year of college. Even scientists who believe that human activity is causing climate change have panned it for its simple treatment of a complex issue.

Duke’s choice this year, Junot Díaz’ The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, is another example of the race, class, gender lens that faculty love. The book is framed as a part of the “the Dominican-American experience” instead of simply focusing on human experience or even post-adolescent experience. Even Chapel Hill’s selection this year, Paul Cuadros’ A Home on the Field, which tells the story of a Siler City, North Carolina, soccer team, focuses unnecessarily on the ethnicity of the soccer team members and their identity as immigrants.

Moreover, many of the books chosen by our universities are boring or far too easy. Three Cups of Tea, picked this year by many universities around the state, is a simple parable about hard work and “giving back” to less privileged people, but nothing more. Fans of the book, which is about a mountaineer who helps a Pakistani village build a new school, have called it a “remarkable adventure” and a “thrilling read,” but it offers little challenge or intellectual stimulus for college-bound students.

Ironically, summer reading choices rarely even fulfill the universities’ stated missions. At UNC-Chapel Hill, the summer reading program is designed to “enhance participation in the intellectual life of the campus.” But, Cuadros’ A Home on the Field—another feel-good morality story—does little to prepare students for the intellectually rigorous analysis and comprehension that college courses should demand.

Perhaps this watering-down of summer reading assignments is just symptomatic of a larger trend in universities. As the Pope Center has pointed out before, students’ general education requires few, if any literature courses. And most of those can be fulfilled with fluff about modern movies or hip-hop music. With the exception of English majors, few students will confront literature after the summer reading.

In contrast to this dilution of intellectual content, high school AP teachers have chosen works of classic literature, from ancient Greece to 20th century America. While students read The Oresteia in Charlotte, those at a North Raleigh school read Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World during the summer before their 12th grade AP English class. Other summer reading choices in North Carolina high schools include Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, and (my personal favorite) Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

In my senior AP English course at Enloe High School in Raleigh, we were required to read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and to take extensive notes on the book’s symbols, motifs, and themes. I read more classical literature in two years of AP English than I did during four years of university education.

Many AP English readings are chosen from the literary “canon.” The Oresteia, in particular, challenges students to think carefully about universal topics such as temptation and virtue, justice and mercy, freedom and personal responsibility. The story of Orestes’ journey has endured for millennia because, as Ralph McInerny has observed, books in the canon teach students about the dilemmas facing human beings and how fictional or historical characters decided them.

College summer reading assignments should continue students’ exploration of the classics while also introducing them to college-level literature and analysis. If high school seniors can handle Macbeth, surely North Carolina’s college students can. By being accepted in college, undergraduates have proved (or should have proved) their aptitude. Instead of feeding them political or feel-good pablum, schools should challenge them with material they deserve.

A selection of summer readings from around the state is listed below:

  • Appalachian State University: Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin
  • Duke University: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
  • East Carolina University: Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin
  • Elon University: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
  • Guilford College: Saints at the River by Ron Rash
  • North Carolina State University: Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin
  • UNC-Asheville: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • UNC-Charlotte: Listening Is an Act of Love by David Isay
  • UNC-Chapel Hill: A Home on the Field by Paul Cuadros
  • UNC-Greensboro: My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student by Rebekah Nathan
  • UNC-Wilmington: A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah
  • Western Carolina University: Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin