Freshman Reading Choices 2015: Welcome to Groupthink U.

(Editor’s note: The full list of summer readings in North Carolina appears below.) 

If one is looking for clues regarding what universities think a college education should be about, one obvious place to look is their freshman summer reading programs. These programs are often the first interactions students have with their new school and their first actual assignments. 

The 2013-14 edition of the National Association of Scholars “Beach Books” report finds that the programs are becoming more popular. The report says that colleges claim to assign summer reading to build community, begin conversations, encourage critical thinking, and inspire social activism. 

Such programs could have great value. It is good that colleges are encouraging students to read, an activity that fewer students are engaged in than they used to be. A 2014 Common Sense Media study found that the number of 17-year-olds who “never” or “hardly ever” read for pleasure had tripled since 1984—to 27 percent from 9 percent. 

Unfortunately, colleges often use their summer reading programs not to help students make the leap to the higher standard of scholarship that should be demanded of them at the collegiate level, but to expose them to books that may influence them to adopt the political agenda of the left. 

At least, that’s what a look at the summer reading selections in one state, North Carolina, reveals. Last year, I highlighted the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s choice of The Round House, a novel featuring racial and sexual themes—trendy topics in college today. Those themes continue this year. Recently, national media drew attention to Duke University’s 2015 summer reading choice: incoming freshmen are reading and discussing Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, a book depicting graphic episodes of lesbian sex. UNC-Chapel Hill’s assigned reading is Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, about racial disparities in the criminal justice system. 

Especially popular this year are books centered on victimhood or identity struggles of various kinds. There may be good cause to learn about those topics, but when they become the dominant trend for summer reading programs over multiple years, one starts to wonder what really is the intent of these programs. Such consistent pounding away at similar themes, given the entire vast array of books from which to choose, suggests the programs are meant to introduce students to a certain worldview, and the reading program is just the convenient and seemingly scholarly way to do so. 

Take, for example, Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario, this year’s hottest book in North Carolina, with four universities assigning it. It is a true story about a teenager from Honduras who traveled alone to the United States to search for his mother. The tale tugs at the reader’s heartstrings while the author criticizes U.S. immigration policy. 

Other choices involve similar stories and themes. Davidson College assigned Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book about a Nigerian woman who struggles with racism and immigration issues on a journey to the U.S. Appalachian State University chose A Long Way Gone, Ishmael Beah’s memoir about his time as a child soldier in the Sierra Leone Civil War. The University of Mount Olive chose A Home on the Field by Paul Cuadros, a book about a North Carolina Latino soccer team. 

Incidents from the United States racial past are also popular. Meredith College selected A Mighty Long Way, a book by one of the famed Little Rock Nine, the first black students to attend a segregated Arkansas high school. N.C. Central chose Scott Ellsworth’s The Secret Game, about a 1944 basketball game between a black team and a white team. 

The point is not that no one should read such books, but that the uniformity of summer reading topics has reached the point of self-parody. Upon browsing the list, one might conclude that all of humanity’s best books are about minorities fighting and ultimately overcoming the oppressive constrictions of Western, male-dominated society. 

If it is not pure ideology that causes all of those colleges to cling to that formula, then it must be intellectual laziness. 

Whatever the cause, colleges, parents, and students should question whether the programs are accomplishing a basic goal that should be taken as granted in any reading program: fostering a student’s love for literature. 

A recent article by Gary Saul Morson at Commentary magazine (echoing a controversial classic by novelist Francine Prose in Harper’s) wonders if students have grown to detest reading because of the way it is taught. Rather than imbuing them with love and respect for a classic work, for example, Morson says professors teach them to judge the morality of the author or what the work tells us about society at the time it was written. 

While Morson’s criticism primarily applies to curriculum classes, the same conceit is present in freshman summer reading programs. Why do we read books? Looking at the titles chosen for summer reading, it seems that reading is simply a vehicle to discuss some pressing social issue. If so, why do all colleges seem to have settled on the same issues? Even if colleges insist on making these programs about discussing social problems, they should do so in a way that does more than encourage students to confirm and perpetuate the biases of the selection committees. 

Next summer, some colleges ought to try a different vision for their reading programs. Offer serious, challenging books—maybe even some classics, instead of the trendy new books being assigned today. There will be plenty of chances for students to learn about multiculturalism and diversity over their four to six years. Diversity in freshman reading picks, however, is sorely missing.

North Carolina’s freshman summer reading list, in alphabetical order by school:

Appalachian State University: A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, by Ishmael Beah.

Barton College: Strange as This Weather Has Been, by Ann Pancake.

Bennett College: undecided

Belmont Abbey College: The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis.

Cabarrus College of Health Sciences:  Strengthsfinder, by Tom Rath.

Campbell University: no reading program

Catawba College: Even Artichokes Have Doubts, by Marina Keegan.

Chowan University: no reading program

College at Southeastern: no reading program

Davidson College: Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Duke University: Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel.

East Carolina University: Enrique’s Journey, by Sonia Nazario.

Elizabeth City State University: no reading program

Elon University: Why We Can’t Wait, by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Fayetteville State University: did not respond

Gardner-Webb University: Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. (fall reading program)

Greensboro College: no reading program

High Point University: The Work: My Search for a Life That Matters, by Wes Moore.

Johnson & Wales-Charlotte: Enrique’s Journey, by Sonia Nazario.

Johnson C. Smith University: Enrique’s Journey, by Sonia Nazario.

Lees-McRae College: no reading program

Lenoir-Rhyne University: The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, by Jeff Hobbs.

Livingstone College: did not respond

Mars Hill University: no reading program

Meredith College: A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School, by Carlotta Walla Lanier & Lisa Frazier Page.

Methodist University: no reading program

Mid-Atlantic Christian University: no reading program

Montreat College: did not respond

NC A&T State University: no reading program

NC Central University: The Secret Game, by Scott Ellsworth.

NC State University: Stand Up That Mountain, by Jay Erskine Leutze.

NC Wesleyan College: no reading program

Pfeiffer University: did not respond

Queens University of Charlotte: no reading program 

Salem College: The Walls Around Us, by Nova Ren Suma. 

Shaw University: no reading program

St. Andrews University: did not respond

St. Augustine’s University: did not respond

UNC Asheville: no reading program

UNC-Chapel Hill: Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson.

UNC Charlotte: The Postmortal, by Drew Magary.

UNC Greensboro: Where Am I Wearing?: A Global Tour to the Countries, Factories, and People that Make Our Clothes, by Kelsey Timmerman.

UNC Pembroke: Picking Cotton, by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, Ronald Cotton and Erin Torneo

UNC School of the Arts: did not respond

UNC Wilmington: Chasing Chaos: My Decade In and Out of Humanitarian Aid, by Jessica Alexander.

University of Mount Olive: A Home on the Field: How One Championship Soccer Team Inspires Hope for the Revival of Small Town America, by Paul Cuadros.

Wake Forest University: no required reading

Warren Wilson College: no required reading

Western Carolina University: The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates, by Wes Moore.

William Peace University: Where Am I Wearing?: A Global Tour to the Countries, Factories, and People that Make Our Clothes, by Kelsey Timmerman.

Wingate University: Enrique’s Journey, by Sonia Nazario.

Winston-Salem State University: did not respond