More than 350 colleges assigned a book to their freshmen last summer. That is, each college picked one book as a common reading. That book was sent on a large mission. Its first job was to create community among the students by giving them something beyond social networking as a shared experience. The book is also meant to introduce pre-freshmen to college-level reading. Behind this lurks a third hope: engaging the half-hearted so they don’t drop out.
The books college pick, however, often betray these purposes. That’s because the common readings are dull and predictable. When I wrote the National Association of Scholars’ new report, Beach Books: 2014-2016: What Do Colleges and Universities Want Students to Read Outside Class?, I found that the typical assignment is a recent memoir with a simple story told in an even simpler style. This year’s most assigned book was Wes Moore’s The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates (2010). It tells how Moore, a poor black kid on the streets of crime-ridden Baltimore, overcame the odds to become a Rhodes Scholar, a decorated army officer, and a White House Fellow. He discovers a namesake in Baltimore who instead became a crack dealer and convicted murderer. Moore challenges the reader to do something for all the Wes Moores who weren’t as fortunate as he.
The Other Wes Moore fits a formula: an uplifting tale told by a young hero who faces down social injustice, triumphs over adversity, and inspires us to do our part as well. It must be told in words a ninth grader can understand.
Almost three-quarters of colleges choose a memoir or a popular biography. The rest mostly choose young-adult novels that follow the same formula. Five colleges in the last two years have assigned Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007) and three colleges assigned The Fault in Our Stars (2012), John Green’s tale of teen romance in the cancer ward. Comic books also make the cut: Nine schools in the last two years assigned March (2013). In it civil rights icon John Lewis, with the help of a co-writer and a graphic artist, tells how he came to march on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on “Bloody Sunday,” March 7, 1965. Written at a fourth-grade level, March may help “build community,” but it doesn’t have much to do with introducing students to college reading.
Nearly all the books campaign for progressive causes. Joshua Davis’ Spare Parts: Four Undocumented Teenagers, One Ugly Robot, and the Battle for the American Dream (2014) celebrates illegal immigrants. Enrique’s Journey (2006) tugs the heartstrings for a teenage drug-using thief who sneaks across the border. Amnesty anyone? Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (2014), Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway’s The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future (2014), and Edward Humes’ Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash (2012) say amen to anti-capitalist environmentalism. Katie Rain Hill’s Rethinking Normal: A Memoir in Transition (2014) and Amy Ellis Nutt’s Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family (2015) drag students to the cutting edge of transgender activism.
Common readings tell us of the coming storms. Colleges are admitting large numbers of semi-literate students who—POW! ZAP!—can’t read much more than comic books. Students stunted by K-12 education that skips over most of American history are ready only for stories of Right Now. Students immersed in Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, and Twitter have little patience for anything but ego-centric story-telling. They want “selfie books”: snapshots of themselves that look good.
The colleges imprint the students’ blank minds with their social justice agenda. No one should be surprised by the surge of support for socialism that has raised Bernie’s boat in the Democratic primaries. Common readings are all about a progressive Mr. Smith going to Washington. Bernie’s story is the story of every common reading.
There’s proof it doesn’t have to be this way. The University of Kansas assigned Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. Bates College assigned Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality. Here and there colleges assign a play by Shakespeare or a novel by Graham Greene. Colleges don’t have to sink to the level of their least capable students. Nor do they have to turn every common reading assignment into a progressive morality tale. Let’s help them turn the page.
David Randall earned a Ph.D. in history from Rutgers University and is director of communications at the National Association of Scholars.