Peter Wood of the National Association of Scholars writes for the Martin Center about ways the UNC system Board of Governors could improve campus common reading programs.
As it happens, my organization, the National Association of Scholars, has been tracking campus common reading programs for nearly a decade. We publish an annual summary of our findings under the title Beach Books. The newest edition, due out this summer, looks back over the last decade and provides copious details on who chooses what and why.
Some of the findings are pretty disturbing.
The vast majority of the books selected are very recent: younger than the students, and often published within just the last five years. That’s because the colleges and universities are racing to stay topical and putting no weight at all on the qualities that make a book survive beyond its immediate circumstances. When you are pushing politics on students, that’s what you get.
We have also found that the “reading level” of most of the chosen books is surprisingly low. Most of the books are rated as appropriate for eighth and ninth graders, not college freshmen. Why do our colleges and universities aim so low? Making college look as easy as possible is a priority for many institutions. That’s something for Boards of Governors to wrestle with too. …
… Somewhat to our surprise, our list of recommendations has been taken up by many adults as a way to fill gaps in their own lifetime reading. That by itself testifies to the value of the list, as it shows that these books (and books like these) can connect readers across the generations. Plugging college freshmen into a conversation that includes older siblings, parents, employers, grandparents, and myriad strangers they will meet in years to come is surely a better investment in their education than being up-to-date with the latest polemic against capitalism or in favor of the vegan lifestyle.