Increasingly, colleges are assigning reading to incoming freshman to read. The choice of reading, however, is anything but reassuring, as has been outlined by the National Association of Scholars.
One of the major problems is that, consistent with Common Core, fiction is being replaced by dry texts and essays. Why? Because the essays and texts they are pushing are ideologically slanted, combined with the fact that incoming freshmen are not ready for college.
“Common Core replaces many of the full-length classic novels state-level K-12 education standards once favored with brief selections instead. Common Core also tends to substitute short, non-fiction “informational texts” for literature. Critics of the Common Core worry that replacing classic novels with brief bits of non-fiction not only dumbs down the curriculum, but opens the way to its thoroughgoing politicization.
“The NAS Beach Books report shows these fears to be entirely justified. A learning environment stripped of literary richness and reduced to preachy leftism already exists in campus common reading programs. Instead of fighting it, Common Core simply carries this unfortunate trend into our high schools. Common Core is supposed to turn out ‘college ready’ students. Since preserving your book-virginity throughout high school is excellent preparation for the trendy memoirs and graphic novels many colleges now assign their inexperienced freshmen, I guess Common Core works. When it comes to reading books in their entirety, Common Core supporters would appear to endorse a form of abstinence education.”
One such egregious example:
“That led me to Eula Biss’s collection, Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays, a winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism. Assigned at a couple of the more selective colleges covered by the NAS Beach Books report (American University and Washington University in St. Louis) Biss’s book features arresting writing and relentlessly leftist politics. As with other common readings, while the politics are pervasive, they are conveyed in roundabout rather than overtly polemical fashion.
“The standout essay at the head of the book, ‘Time and distance overcome,’ is about telephone poles. (You can read it here.) What begins as an homage to Alexander Graham Bell’s energy and vision quickly devolves into a tale of the hazards of private property and the depths of America’s racism. We learn from Biss of the many instances in which black men were lynched from telephone poles. Unable to recover her innocent delight at the beauty and wonder of gracefully arced telephone wires glinting in the sun, Biss can only hope for a collective apology by Americans for our deeply racist history.
“Should you object that the lynchings have ended while the technological wonder has endured, Biss spends the rest of the book uncovering the allegedly pervasive racism of our time and apologizing for it. What we take to be the central events of our day—economic fluctuations, war in the Middle East, the latest technological breakthrough, etc.—seem more like a fantasy-world to Biss, for whom the hidden racism she detects everywhere is the surest, hardest reality.”
Some of the findings in the NAS report include:
- Common reading programs are becoming more popular.
- The list of readings continues to be dominated by recent, trendy, and intellectually unchallenging books.
- The assigned books frequently emphasize progressive political themes, and the top subject category is multiculturalism.
- Colleges increasingly see their common reading as exercises in community-building more than student preparation for academic life.
- A common reading “industry” is emerging, with publishers, authors, and colleges seeking to advance a particular kind of book.
Some of the more specific problems:
- Classics: Only four colleges assigned works that could be considered classics. Those were Melville’s short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (LeMoyne College), a compilation of Shakespeare’s works (Indiana University, South Bend), the book of Job from the Bible (St. Michael’s College), and Edgar Allen Poe’s Great Tales and Poems (University of Wisconsin, Parkside). Other than these exceptions, the hundreds of common reading programs across the country ignored books of lasting merit. Dickens, Dostoevsky, Austen, and Hemingway were not to be found. There was no trace of Twain, Tolstoy, Brontë, Wilde, Hawthorne, Douglass, or Steinbeck. No To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, The Count of Monte Cristo, or even Catcher in the Rye.
- Fiction: Only 28 percent of common reading assignments were fictional. While fiction isn’t going away in the larger scheme of contemporary reading, colleges are predisposed against it because they want to show students socially-engaged authors who are active in the real world.
- Modern literature: Even in confining themselves to living authors, colleges neglect some of the best ones, such as Marilynne Robinson, Thomas Pynchon, Wendell Berry, Donna Tart, Tom Wolfe, and Don DeLillo.
- History: Other than a “media package” on the civil rights movement assigned by the University of Alabama, Birmingham, no colleges assigned any works of history.
- Diversity: There is essentially a common reading genre – inspiring stories, apocalyptic visions, self-assigned projects, identity crises, advice manuals, and curious trends in human behavior – this is the stuff of common reading, and rarely do colleges deviate from these norms.
Their full 2013-2014 report can be read below. Previous reports can be found here.