Renowned essayist Joseph Epstein has shared some reflections on NAS's latest report on college freshman reading, Beach Books 2013-2014: What Do Colleges and Universities Want Students to Read Outside Class?. Epstein writes regularly at The Weekly Standard, was the editor of The American Scholar from 1974 to 1988, and is the author, most recently, of A Literary Education and Other Essays (2014).
Reading NAS’s excellent report on common reading programs now instituted for incoming freshmen by so many colleges and universities, I was brought up by an administrator of one such a program remarking that it “is meant to show students that reading is not drudgery and can even be fun.” She was referring here, please note, not to primary or high-school students with serious mental disabilities, but to college students, young men and women beginning a course in what is known as – though nowadays one cannot always say it with a straight face - higher education. Other motives behind Common Reading programs are helping the students to bond with one another, to cohere as a community, and to lead them to consider community activism as an outlet for their idealism. Over a long life I have read more than a few books, and none has ever, I’m pleased to say, accomplished any of these things for me. But, then, most of the books I’ve read have not had to pass the low bar of the diversity deans in contemporary colleges and universities. Most of these books have not been, as the great majority of books chosen for Common Reading programs turn out to be, works of ephemeral interest notable for their political correctness. The gravamen of the NAS’s report discloses the Common Reading program to be another of those sad frauds put upon the young by the educational division of that humorless yet fundamentally unserious firm known as the Good Intentions Paving Company.