In Common Reading Assignments, Colleges Ignore the Best Books

PRINCETON, NJ (September 12, 2011)—The National Association of Scholars (NAS) has released a new study of colleges and universities that assign a book, either to new students or to the student body at large, as “common reading.”

The study, “Beach Books: What Do Colleges and Universities Want Students to Read Outside Class? 2011-2012,” covers 245 colleges and 148 books. It found that most books colleges assigned this year were recent, personal, race-focused, and unchallenging.

Major Findings:

  1. Recent books trump the classics. Almost 90 percent of colleges chose books published since January 2000, and all but two selected books published since January 1972.
  2. Only two books—one by Mark Twain and one by Aldous Huxley—are “classics” even in a broad sense.
  3. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2010) by Rebecca Skloot is by far the most popular book.
  4. Of the 100 colleges that selected books with a racial or ethnic theme, 60 chose books that focused on African Americans.   

Peter Wood, president of the NAS, said, “Colleges and universities with common reading programs are paying little attention to books traditionally held in high esteem among educated people. One reason for this is that colleges are trying to be politically correct in their selections. Another is that colleges have lowered their expectations of what college students are capable of understanding.”

NAS identified five problems in U.S. society that are amplified when colleges limit students’ exposure to good books:

  1. An inability to distinguish “the truth” from “my truth”
  2. A tendency to ignore aspects of the world that fall outside the bounds of race, class, and gender
  3. A shallow understanding of the human heart
  4. A lack of humility and willingness to learn
  5. A sense of resentment toward those who are prosperous

Wood said NAS encourages colleges to improve their common reading programs. “We believe colleges can do better, and we’re here to help.” NAS recommends 11 steps colleges can take to choose better books and make the most of the common reading experience. It also offers a list of 43 books it recommends for common reading.

The National Association of Scholars provides the only comprehensive database of college common reading programs in the United States.

NAS works to improve American higher education by expanding intellectual standards, academic freedom, and institutional transparency in colleges and universities. To learn more about NAS, visit


Ashley Thorne, Director of Communications, NAS: 609-683-7878;

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