The Sad History of Freshman Reading

For years, the Pope Center has been pointing out the weaknesses of “freshman readings”—the books that colleges and universities expect their incoming students to read, presumably to establish a common framework for thought and discussion and to launch their intellectual lives at the university. As the Pope Center has observed, most of the readings actually highlight the obsession that faculty and administrators have with leftist doctrine, which is advanced by stories of oppression, guilt, and inequality.

This year, that obsession received national attention. The National Association of Scholars analyzed 290 summer reading programs. The organization, composed of faculty around the country who are committed to defending the core values of liberal education, found “widespread assignment of books that promote liberal political views; a preponderance of contemporary writing; and a surprisingly low level of intellectual difficulty.”

North Carolina students’ experiences with freshman readings reflect just these characteristics. Our articles on the subject (collected here) reveal that as far back as 2002, race, class, and gender-based oppression, environmental degradation, inequality, and poverty have been typical topics confronting students in summer before they start school.

Sad to say, this year is no different. As the list below indicates, many schools in North Carolina assigned predictably liberal tomes about environmental crisis (No Impact Man), American poverty (There Are No Children Here), social injustices, and oppression. A few universities chose trendy, feel-good books (Three Cups of Tea, A Thousand Splendid Suns.)

Once again, time-tested classics failed to make the list. Criticism that classics were avoided led Jeffery Braden, Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at NC State, to defend NC State’s choices in a letter to the Pope Center. He pointed out that choosing a modern book has advantages: The “time/context” of the book is familiar to the students; they won’t have read the books in high school (many of them are nearly brand-new); and, of course, only living, modern authors can come to campus and lecture.

But these reasons seem inadequate. Most high school students have barely skimmed the surface of the classical canon; the most often-read “great books”—“Romeo & Juliet,” Heart of Darkness, The Odyssey—are uniform from school to school. Moreover, it’s not clear why a student would be any more familiar with present-day Pakistan (the “context” for Three Cups of Tea) than he or she would be with the  seventeenth-century Western world. Because of their focus on the human condition and the important choices that all individuals must face, classics are timeless.

In spite of the overall flimsy choices, a few universities in the country choose intellectually rigorous readings. One is Bard College, located in Annandale, New York. Although Bard is known as a politically liberal college, it has a tradition of respect for learning. Its long-time president, Leon Botstein, is an aficionado of the arts (and a famed orchestral conductor).

Responding in part to the NAS study, he explained his institution’s choice. Bard College, Botstein wrote, uses the summer readings to remind entering students of the idealism it believes should be prevalent among students and faculty, an idealism about the task of learning, and the satisfaction that comes from a rigorous engagement in interpretation, analysis, and the formulation of one’s own considered opinions.”

Unfortunately, an innovative approach to summer reading at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs has been terminated. Two years ago, freshmen were introduced to both Plato’s Apology and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. This year, the selection is The Last Lecture, by Randy Pausch. It may be inspirational, but it is a contemporary book about death.

A slightly more positive sign is that one of the most famous offenders, UNC-Chapel Hill, has made a better choice this year than in past years, when it chose such books as Nickel and Dimed (2003), Covering (2009), and Approaching the Qur’an (2002). Picking Cotton is a true story of a North Carolina man wrongly imprisoned for rape. Again, the topic is grim, but the book ultimately focuses on the authors’ triumphs: successful struggles for truth and forgiveness.

Examples of summer readings in North Carolina are listed below (alphabetically by university).

  • Appalachian State: Mudbound by Hillary Jordan chronicles one woman’s trials as she tries to raise a family in the Mississippi Delta in the late 1940s.
  • Davidson: Here, Bullet by Brian Turner is a soldier’s memoir of his experiences in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Iraq, written in verse.
  • Duke University: Everything Matters, a modern fantasy by Ron Currie Jr., follows a young man as he tries to make sense of a world he knows is doomed.
  • East Carolina: Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin documents the experiences of an American nurse who built the first school in the small Pakistani village of Korphe.
  • Fayetteville State: There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in The Other America by Alex Kotlowitz is the story of two brothers’ trials growing up in a public housing project in Chicago.
  • Meredith: Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn makes the case for investing in the health and autonomy of women worldwide.
  • NC A&T: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is the true story of how one woman’s DNA, obtained after she died of cancer in 1951, provided the scientific breakthrough needed to prevent polio.
  • NC State: Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
  • Peace: The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World by Jacqueline Novogratz, founder of the Acumen Fund, explains how the author used microfinance to bring opportunities to women in developing nations.
  • UNC-Chapel Hill: Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton tells the true story of a North Carolina man wrongly imprisoned for rape.
  • UNC Greensboro: Students choose either Absolutely American: Four Years at West Point by David Lipsky about a group of West Point cadets who don’t quite fit in or A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini about the lives to two Afghan women.
  • UNC Wilmington: No Impact Man: The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet, and the Discoveries He Makes About Himself and Our Way of Life in the Process by Colin Beavan tells the story of Beavan’s yearlong effort to leave no impact on the planet.

Universities have one chance to make a first impression on students; they should use that opportunity to choose books that are rigorous, that challenge students to think critically about new ideas, and that genuinely introduce them to university work and intellectual life.