This article originally appeared in First Things on October 9, 2014.
The first-year reading program at Williams College, “turned out to be kind of like a bad blind date,” wrote Michaela Morton, a freshman at the time, in an article in the student newspaper.
To kick off that year (2008-2009), Williams had asked accepted students to read Sherman Alexie’s novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, a book that peaked in common reading popularity around 2011 and has declined since then. Morton, who went on to graduate cum laude in English literature and French language, compared reading Diary to a blind date with a twelve-year-old.
She wrote, “He’s kind of sweet. He’s funny. . . . He’s growing up. But he’s not grown-up yet, no matter what the New York Times and Newsday say. He’s a little bit immature, a little too young for 18- and 19- and 22-year-olds.” Morton was hoping for something “that would challenge and provoke, not simply fulfill a rubric that designates it ‘D’ for diversity.”
Her disappointment was not only in the book itself, but also in Williams, for not knowing her well enough to choose a book with “a little more heft, a little more subtlety and depth, something that makes me think.”
Do colleges know the students they’ve accepted enough to recommend them the right book? It is a question I’ve pondered for several years while researching the reports I’ve done on common reading programs, Beach Books. My fourth excursion on the beach is in press; it covers 341 colleges and goes deeper into the college rationales than the previous three reports.
Still, I have Ms. Morton’s implicit question: Do the colleges actually see their new students as intellectually ambitious readers? Colleges know that most of their freshmen wouldn’t elect to read Don Quixote. But they don’t recognize that many students, like Morton, want to be challenged to try books that initially seem a little over their heads.
Furthermore, colleges themselves need to show more maturity. It is up to them to take students higher, to introduce them to the best that has been thought and said. They are in the position of offering new students their first glimpse of what it means to seek some elements of truth, beauty, and goodness in the words of a printed book. They have the task of bringing reluctant students to the first lookout point where they can see what lies ahead—and a freshman reading program is a great place to begin.
If instead of taking them to that lookout point, the program coordinators offer students banal reassurances that everything will be easy, comfortable, and unchallenging, the result will be worse than no common reading at all.
In choosing a common reading, colleges have the opportunity to start students on a path that may define them for the rest of their lives. Some are helping students discover a lasting love. Most are setting them up on awkward blind dates.