Summer Reading: Most Colleges Waste an Important Educational Opportunity

This summer incoming freshmen at colleges across America will participate in an unfamiliar ritual: They will read a bad book and then tell complete strangers what they think of it.

That isn’t how the colleges characterize it, of course. They assign common readings to these students, and set up discussion sections during orientation, supposedly to build community, state the college values, and introduce students to college expectations.

They almost always assign a book that meets these criteria: a recent book, an uplifting book (ideally a memoir), a book that focuses on suffering, and a book suffused with progressive politics. Furthermore, the author should be able to come to campus to give a speech at convocation or during the fall semester. And most importantly the book can’t be difficult to read, since colleges need (in the words of John N. Gardner, who coined the phrase “first-year experience”) to “plan for the students you actually have, not those you wish you had, or think you used to have, or think you used to be like.”

The award for the most juvenile summer book of recent years probably goes to March, a comic-book biography of civil rights activist John Lewis. At least no North Carolina school has chosen it.

Many students in North Carolina will suffer through a typical selection of common readings this summer. So far, four colleges in the state—Duke University, East Carolina, Elon, and North Carolina State—have assigned Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, a memoir that tells readers the American justice system is incurably racist and unjust.

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Random House advertises Just Mercy to high school teachers and boasts that it was selected as a common reading at Boston College High School and the Browning School. So, four North Carolina universities have decided to introduce students to college expectations with a book that the publisher thinks is appropriate for high school students.

North Carolina students at other colleges will endure much the same material.

  • At University of North Carolina at Charlotte they will read Kennedy Odede and Jessica Posner’s  memoir Find Me Unafraid: Love, Loss, and Hope in an African Slum—a Kenyan and an American fall in love, she helps him get a college education in America, and they return to Kenya to found a non-governmental organization.

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Colleges can do better by their students—and at their best, they do.

In 2014, Queens University of Charlotte assigned Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son. This novel is more than just an exposé of the horrors of North Korean life; For literary artistry and psychological insight, it deserved its Pulitzer. That same year, Belmont Abbey College assigned Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory (1940), a modern classic that tells of the 1930s Mexican government’s anti-Catholic terror with literary power and psychological profundity. Last year Elon University assigned Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Why We Can’t Wait (1964)—a choice that satisfied progressive pieties, but which also introduced students to a work of literary and historical importance by a figure in America’s modern canon.

These choices, alas, are all too rare, but they show that colleges can choose better books by adopting the best practices of their peers.

Colleges would do even better with deliberate policies of selecting classic works that would stretch their students’ minds. At the National Association of Scholars we have recommended 80 books that we think are appropriate for incoming freshmen.

Do you want students to know something about how science really works? Assign them James Watson’s The Double Helix, the brash and gossipy tell-all book about how DNA was discovered. Do you want students to learn about suffering? Assign them Aleksandr Solzhenitysn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the novelistic account of a day in the Gulag.

Do you want students to be able to judge the value of uplifting memoirs that urge us to go out and change the world? Assign them Voltaire’s Candide, with its chastened judgment that this is not the best of all possible worlds and perhaps we should concentrate on tending our own gardens.

Uplifting memoirs make students feel good; books like these might make them think.

And classic works are so varied and rich—certainly in comparison with the monoculture of mawkish personal journeys now on tap—that schools could choose works that are relevant to a particular college or state.

Would you like students to know what North Carolina has contributed to the freedom of their country? Assign them Lawrence E. Babits and Joshua B. Howard’s Long, Obstinate, and Bloody: The Battle of Guilford Courthouse. Are you interested in a depiction of Jim Crow-era North Carolina? There is Paul Green’s Pulitzer-Prize winning play, In Abraham’s Bosom. Is it a good idea for students to read an exciting modern novel by a North Carolina author? Why not Sharyn McCrumb’s She Walks These Hills, which evokes Appalachian history and culture with lively prose.

Those choices would stretch students’ minds while giving them a greater knowledge of what makes them different from their peers across the nation and the world—the rich tradition of their state.

But what of John Gardner, and his caution to “plan for the students you actually have?” The students we have are adults, capable of rising to challenge, endowed with curiosity to find out about the world of the mind, other human beings, and their own traditions. Granted, if you condescend to them and assign them mediocre modern memoirs, they will probably slack. But ask more of them, and many will answer.

A college common reading should be a book for adults, not a warmed-over book for high-school students. It should be written beautifully. It should introduce students to human beings stranger and more distant than their 25-year-old peers. It should draw students to enter into the broad world of the human mind and spirit, and not just that narrow corner that satisfies the dogmas of progressive piety and uplift.

If colleges seek out such books, they can find them, as thickly scattered as the stars in the sky.