Treasure Abandoned: College Common Reading Programs Continue to Miss the Best Books

Ashley Thorne

At Inside Higher Ed, English professor Carolyn Foster Segal isn’t thrilled about her college’s choice for freshman summer reading: This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women

Her opinion article could be the start of some healthy challenges, from inside the university, to the current trend in college freshman/common reading. Last year NAS published a database listing books selected for such programs for the academic year 2010-2011. The top selected book colleges chose last year was the two-volume anthology, This I Believe, a collection of short essays written for a series on National Public Radio that ran from 2005-2009.

NAS’s corresponding report, Beach Books: What Do Colleges and Universities Want Students to Read Outside Class?, applauded the concept of common reading programs—especially as college students have fewer and fewer shared intellectual experiences. We also made some recommendations, including “choose books that challenge students intellectually” and “pay deliberate attention to important books from earlier eras.” We then produced a list of 43 books we recommend for common reading programs. This I Believe wasn’t on it.

Why not? In Beach Books we explain why the two-book series is not an ideal choice. But we prefer to let Professor Segal give her own reasons.

It’s not that Segal doesn’t enjoy reading others’ personal philosophies of life, or listening to them on NPR. But she believes that 

a much better reading choice would be a novel or a full-length work of nonfiction. Why not make a sustained reading experience the first lesson of college? There is something engaging, enthralling, and perhaps even transforming about the experience of being swept away by the arc of a sustained narrative.

Indeed, sustained reading is an excellent first lesson of college. But amazingly, some students make it to college without ever having read a book at all. Segal goes on:

There’s another reason to choose a full-length work. With cuts in classes—cuts in humanities courses that served not just English majors but all majors—students have fewer and fewer opportunities for exposure to literature. If the first-year experience is going to be not only the first, but perhaps one of the last, sustained reading experiences our college students have, then let’s not allow the dialogue to end here, with bytes and mantras.

I couldn’t agree more. Professor Segal makes the same observation NAS made in Beach Books: common reading programs are a sort of short-cut core curriculum. And if this is the closest students will get to a core curriculum, colleges can do a better job of choosing the one book that will serve as the common foundation of a college education.

Professor Segal also objects to This I Believe as the basis for freshman writing exercises in which students are asked to write their own “This I Believe” essays. Such an exercise, Segal says, is too self-centered. College is a time when students should learn to understand the beliefs of others.

And I agree with her that colleges are swayed by a false notion when they pick short books believing that students “don’t like to read.” College is all about reading, and those who would rather avoid it should avoid college altogether. And as Segal writes, many students learn to love reading when they practice it and when they are exposed to truly good books. NAS blogger and English professor David Clemens wrote that his Intro to Literature class at Monterey Peninsula College inspired a student, Joshua, to start reading and discussing the Great Books with his classmates. Joshua said, “We felt and spoke as if we had rediscovered some long-forgotten treasure abandoned by the generation before...We felt we’d missed out on something essential by not being exposed to these works earlier.”

Common reading selection committees: pay attention. Most students are like Joshua and his classmates—they have been missing out on excellent books, books that have stood the test of time and helped lay the foundations for the civilizational ideas we now take for granted. Take the opportunity of the common reading program to remedy this deficiency. Don’t be seduced by the lure of what’s popular now; have the discipline to see long-term.

Professor Segal’s proposed alternatives—Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003) and Tina Fey’s Bossypants (2011)—are not characterized by such discipline. Fey’s autobiography, full of self-deprecating humor, is merely entertaining. And Nafisi’s story about secretly reading Western classics with her female students evokes the power of great literature but does so indirectly. Both may be well-written and contain admirable messages, yet more suited for personal leisure than for a college-level reading program.

But Segal puts her finger on some of the problems with the current caliber of common reading selections: they cater to students’ comfort levels, fail to broaden intellectual horizons, and assume that students cannot handle anything more challenging. As for This I Believe specifically, Segal sums it up well as “bytes and mantras.”

This I Believe is already so last year. For the academic year 2011-2012, it’s been replaced by the wildly popular book by Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2010). I’m reading it now and will report further once I’ve completed it.

Stay tuned in the next month or so for this year’s edition of Beach Books, where we’ll present a complete list of the current books selected for college common reading programs. 

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