Ashley Thorne Defends the Need to Challenge Students

National Association of Scholars

The Chronicle of Higher Education published an essay by Ashley Thorne titled "Students Will Rise When Colleges Challenge Them to Read Good Books" on March 13, 2016. Thorne quoted John Gardner, who penned a response titled "On Providing Learning Support for the Students You Actually Have" in the Chronicle. Thorne responds to Gardner's commentary below:

In his March 28 essay responding to my article “Students Will Rise When Colleges Challenge Them to Read Good Books,” John N. Gardner writes that I have quoted him out of context and focused too much on challenging students rather than supporting them. As he notes, I did confirm the quote with him – “Plan for the students you actually have, not those you wish you had, or think you used to have, or think you used to be like.” He complains that I did not quote him at more length and that I equated his comment with low expectations. I wrote, “In other words, be realistic; don’t expect too much of students.”

My essay in no way distorted what Dr. Gardner said. He argues that we need to both “challenge and support” students. Who would disagree? Challenging students isn’t enough on its own, and I wrote that the burden falls to colleges to show students why good books are worth reading and help them set their sights higher.

But the leaders of the “first-year experience” movement can’t show that colleges are challenging students. The evidence is clear. NAS’s reports on common reading programs ( that year after year colleges assign very recent books as their introduction to college reading. Most of the titles written at a junior-high reading level (that’s not my assessment but that of the Lexile independent ratings - see So when Dr. Gardner praises the colleges for using “high-impact practices” such as common reading, I’m not impressed.

Perhaps he is right that we might complement one another’s efforts. The NAS can focus on the “challenge” side of things, and he and other first-year teachers can work on the “support” side. Right now, however, it’s clear that the challenge is no more than empty rhetoric. To serve students better, it’s time to assign good books that require students to stretch, at least a little.

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