Last month, the National Association of Scholars released its annual comprehensive survey of books assigned to entering college freshmen (Beach Books 2013-2014: What Do Colleges Want Students to Read Outside Class?) and it was true to form. This year the survey reached 341 colleges and universities, including 51 ranked among the top 100 National Universities and 28 ranked among the top 100 National Liberal Arts Colleges by U. S. News & World Report, and the 231 books they assigned and, to the surprise of almost no one, a major conclusion was that “American colleges and universities are using freshman summer reading assignments to introduce students to progressive activism”.
Several of the more significant findings in the report included:
- Of the assigned books, 96% were published in 1990 or later, 51% in 2010 or later; recent, trendy, and intellectually unchallenging books are dominant.
- Multiculturalism was the most popular subject category and social activism was close to the top; clearly, progressive political themes are emphasized.
- Conspicuously lacking were the classics, older literary fiction, good modern literature, and history, which was completely missing.
- Colleges increasingly see these common reading assignments as exercises in community building more than preparation for serious academic life.
To be fair, the study identified and commended 19 institutions that chose books that treated serious academic subjects with depth, but these were clearly a small minority.
The NAS offered a dozen recommendations for improving the selections in the future. Of these, I mention three that stand out as absolutely essential, not just for summer reading, but year around for all students:
- Seek diversity—the intellectual kind.
- In nonfiction, seek works that exemplify important ideas lucidly argued and writers who take their rhetorical task seriously.
- Consider that the book chosen will be more than a reading for the students. It will also be a public representation of the college’s academic standards, values, and reputation.
We have a long way to go in getting this ship turned around and not yet nearly enough help on board to get the job done. Thankfully, the NAS has a big oar in the water.