Reply to Wilson on Freshman Books

Ashley Thorne

NAS’s report, “Beach Books: What Do Colleges Want Freshmen to Read Outside Class?” is receiving attention in a lead news story by Scott Jaschik at Inside Higher Ed, an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, a blog post at Uncertain Principles, and a blog post by John Leo at Minding the Campus. Our study also elicited a response from our friend John K. Wilson, who blogs at College Freedom. We are glad that Wilson follows our work, and we always welcome his remarks.

His comments, though, lead us to wonder whether he’s actually read our report. He writes, for example, “instead of attacking these excellent programs, the NAS should be encouraging every college to adopt a common reading program.” But that’s exactly what we said: “we would like to encourage other colleges to take up common reading programs,” and “We recommend that colleges continue the experiment of common reading programs.” We also offered seven best practice recommendations for colleges with common reading programs. So while he’s correct in noting that we haven’t read every one of the 180 books mentioned in our survey (we do not pretend to have read all 180 books, but we studied summaries and reviews of every one), we wish he would take the time to read our 15-page report with more attention.

Wilson also writes, “The NAS doesn't mention any contemporary conservative books they think deserve to be included.” No we didn’t, because that wasn’t our purpose. Unlike so many in the contemporary academy, we don’t think everything can be reduced to transient political categories. Instead, we urged colleges to choose books of intrinsic educational importance, and stressed that “we do not seek an artificial ‘balance’ of liberal and conservative books.”

A common reading program, Wilson argues, should promote debate by offering “two (or more) books offering sharply opposing views on a particular topic.” Agreed. Then why not pair up, say, Rousseau and Burke or Nietzsche and Cardinal Newman? There is plenty to stoke up debate in such writings, as there is in other works of enduring significance, such as Hamlet, Billy Budd, and Crime and Punishment. Many other books were written when these were, but they have endured because they speak to much more than the purely contemporary.

This brings us to Wilson’s insistence that the majority of the books used in common reading programs are “serious books.” We apparently differ in opinion as to what is “serious.” The top two books in the study are This I Believe, a collection of essays on personal philosophy solicited by NPR and CBS; and Enrique’s Journey, LA Times journalist Sonia Nazario’s account of an illegal immigrant boy’s journey from Honduras to the U.S. Both books undoubtedly contain moving and interesting stories—but little if any intellectual substance. If Wilson thinks these are serious, college-level books, this only confirms the dismal state of what is considered to be “college-level.”

He says that if colleges try to assign more difficult books, students won’t read them since these programs are voluntary. Indeed, as we wrote in the report, “Rather than asking students to stretch to the demands of college-level study, [colleges] shrink college-level study to the comfort zone of the average student.” Why assume that colleges can’t set a higher intellectual tone for incoming students in such a way that freshmen are inspired to rise to the challenge? We coddle both colleges and students when we assume they cannot meet high standards.

Lastly, Wilson asserts, “Of course, disdain for traditional values is part of what any college education should include.” In that case, may we suggest Plato? His proposals for the family and relations between the sexes in The Republic should certainly prove thought-provoking, as should his ideas about the good life.

As for disdain for traditional values, most students are already steeped in it by the time they arrive at college. A classic book would probably be new and unorthodox to them. Books on multiculturalism and environmentalism are just more of the same themes in which they’ve been raised.

In any case, how can we understand contemporary problems if we don’t “stand on the shoulders of giants”? One of the major aims of higher education is to transmit civilization’s legacy from one generation to the next. In learning from the past and weighing competing ideas, students may choose to reject some ancient notions. That’s different from being taught from the beginning that they should adopt a look-down-your-nose disdain for all traditional values.

Again, we thank John Wilson for his response and invite him to continue the discussion. We also hope that he’ll take the time to read our report a bit more closely.

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