Often, incoming freshmen receive their first university assignment before the school year even begins: the summer reading. Many institutions see the summer reading assignment as an opportunity for new students to develop a sense of camaraderie. By reading the same book, the idea is that students will engage in thought-provoking conversations and have a shared educational experience.
Common reading programs are an opportunity to start students’ education on an intellectual high note. Before the semester even begins, students can begin grappling with good reading material that will prepare them for an academically rigorous time in college.
Unfortunately, research from the Chronicle of Higher Education reveals that many universities squander this opportunity by assigning trendy, politically charged books that often lack depth.
On July 21, the Chronicle published a report entitled, These Are the Books That Colleges Think Every Freshman Should Read. The authors, Audrey Williams June and Jacquelyn Elias, “analyzed four academic years’ worth of common reads—more than 1,000 titles at more than 700 institutions—to learn more about the books students are asked to read and the topics explored.” The four academic years covered were 2017-2018 through 2020-2021. Of the 700 institutions evaluated, 27 were from North Carolina, ranging from various community colleges to some of the University of North Carolina (UNC) system schools. However, of the North Carolina schools included in the report, only 13 schools had an assigned reading for three to four of the academic years. (UNC-Chapel Hill, for example, only had summer readings for academic years 2017-2018 and 2018-2019.)
The report’s overall findings highlight three recurring problems with many colleges’ assigned readings. Schools tend to assign books that 1) are trendy and recently published, 2) are one-sided and politicized, 3) and focus on personal narratives.
As stated in the Chronicle’s report, a whopping 70 percent of the common-reading works were produced in or after 2010. In fact, the top 11 most commonly assigned books (two books tied for 8th place) were all published after 2010. For example, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, is a memoir by Bryan Stevenson that was published in 2014. The most commonly assigned summer reading nationwide, the book documents Stevenson’s experience as a lawyer and focuses on themes of criminal justice and race. In North Carolina, Appalachian State University and Catawba Valley Community College have both assigned this reading.
Commenting on the book, David Randall, the research director of the National Association of Scholars, describes it as “a pedestrian memoir that argues that America’s criminal justice system is fundamentally corrupted by racism and propagandizes its readers to join ‘social justice organizations’ working to release criminals from jail.”
Aside from concerns of the book’s political bias, relatively new titles like Just Mercy have not withstood decades’ worth of study and scrutiny. To be sure, there are plenty of new titles that are content-rich and can deepen students’ understanding of history, culture, etc. And there is undoubtedly room in students’ education to explore those kinds of works.
However, assigning recently published works for incoming freshmen is unwise for two reasons. First, many colleges and universities have caved to the “diversity, equity, and inclusion” agenda. Titles published in the last few years have a higher chance of being infused with this politicized and divisive ideology. Secondly, and more fundamentally, colleges should assign readings that have “stood the test of time,” such as the classics of the Western canon. Students should read “the best that has been thought and said,” as poet Matthew Arnold once phrased it. What better time to introduce students to the “great works” than at the beginning of their college career? Unfortunately, most schools seem to be more interested in headline chasing.
The Chronicle’s findings also revealed another, related, issue: many of the assigned books are political and one-sided. According to the report, “about four in 10 common reads were about African Americans or race or race relations.” At the 13 North Carolina schools, the top three book themes were: “race/race relations,” “African-American,” and “immigration” (see graph below).
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander is an example of an assigned reading that is politically charged and presented from a one-sided perspective. The book discusses mass incarceration in the United States as it pertains specifically to African-American males.
In her book, Alexander states that “mass incarceration in the United States… emerged as a stunningly comprehensive and well-designed system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow.” In another part of the book, Alexander writes: “We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.” The North Carolina schools that have assigned this book are North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, and Queens University of Charlotte.
By assigning one-sided and politicized readings, universities seem to be attempting to indoctrinate their students. Institutions claim that they encourage free-thinking and discussion, but if students disagree with a given book’s message, they may feel pressured to keep their opinions to themselves out of fear of being ostracized.
In addition to the prevalence of recent books and political topics, memoirs were popular reads nationwide. Among the over 1,000 titles, the Chronicle discovered that one in five readings were personal narratives. Several schools in North Carolina, for example, assigned Born a Crime by the Daily Show host Trevor Noah, which recounts his experience growing up during the apartheid in South Africa. In the book, Noah criticizes how history is taught in both the United States and South Africa. Comparing South African education to that of the U.S., Noah writes:
We weren’t taught judgment or shame. We were taught history the way it’s taught in America. In America, the history of racism is taught like this: “There was slavery and then there was Jim Crow and then there was Martin Luther King Jr. and now it’s done.”…Facts, but not many, and never the emotional or moral dimension. It was as if the teachers, many of whom were white, had been given a mandate. “Whatever you do, don’t make the kids angry.”
While autobiographies and memoirs can be fruitful reads, it is difficult to look past the author’s personal bias. By assigning these types of readings, institutions seem to be endorsing the author’s perspective.
Of the North Carolina universities discussed, one particular school offered preferable readings over the last four school years: Catawba College. The suggested readings were the 1964 Nobel Lecture by Martin Luther King Jr., Their Finest Hour speech by Winston Churchill, Teach Yourself How to Learn by Stephanie and Saundra McGuire, and finally Meno by Plato.
Three of the four readings were published prior to 2010—and in the case of Meno, centuries ago. This historical “distance” allows readers to be less influenced by current day political fads, thus allowing them to analyze the content from a more objective standpoint. Finally, they each invite discussion and thought on the history of politics, wars, and philosophy. In an effort to be more challenging, perhaps the college could choose longer readings, but overall Catawba College seems to be assigning beneficial readings to students.
While the summer reading is only one book, it nevertheless is indicative of what colleges and universities deem important for students to learn. And the findings from the Chronicle’s report suggest that many colleges are more interested in promoting vapid, headline-chasing, and politicized materials than in providing students with a well-rounded education.
Ashlynn Warta is the state reporter at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal