Originally Posted in the Wall Street Journal “Notable & Quotable”
From the executive summary of “Beach Books: 2014-2016,” a report released Feb. 9 by the National Association of Scholars on its study of more than 350 universities’ “common reading” programs—usually books assigned to freshmen to read the summer before starting school:
Colleges presume students regard reading as a strange and difficult activity, to which they must be introduced with careful thought and great caution. Since these colleges usually do not dare to enforce consequences for not reading the books, they instead have to allure the students with the sweetener of easy, exciting reading. The colleges therefore tend to assign no-fuss digestibles—memoirs and nonfiction, young adult books, science fiction, and comic books, books with young protagonists and books where the students might already have seen the movie, and affirming books that make the students feel good about themselves and what they can do with their college education.
Mission statements for common reading programs further limit the selected texts. Common reading programs that require an author available for a campus visit have to select a recent work, and probably from an author associated with a book publisher specializing in the commercial genre of common reading books. The desire to create community limits the common readings to the most anodyne of topics, excludes any intellectual topic interesting enough to be controversial, and has a marked tendency to redefine community around a shared catechism of belief rather than around a shared love of inquiry into truth. The emphasis on fostering non-academic values such as community, civic engagement, and social justice leads to selecting books that emphasize collective effort for non-academic pursuits rather than the solitary disengagement that is a fundamental component and delight of the life of the mind. College, this sort of common reading tells the incoming student, is a place to indulge a jolly, earnest desire to change the world for the better—and nothing more.
The endless emphasis on suffering rather than on achievement is a peculiar tic of the common reading genre. A gruesomely large number of memoirs assigned as common readings display protagonists with missing limbs, stories of war are more likely to tell of wounds than of valor, and mental or physical dysfunction recurs as a subject again and again. While suffering is often the predicate of achievement, the emphasis on suffering is remarkably large.
College reading committees overwhelmingly select books that align with the liberal and progressive worldview that pervades academia. The urge for consensus and soft edges makes most common readings cautiously liberal; a significant minority are daringly progressive; books that challenge the liberal worldview in any fashion are few and far between.