Common Reading for Common Activism

David Randall

This article was originally published by American Greatness on October 3, 2018. 

A few weeks ago my wife and I were walking through the Brooklyn Book Festival and we saw a booth saying something about Harry Potter. My son is a fan of the books—my wife and I like them, too—so we looked at the booth. It was for an organization that wants to use Harry Potter to inspire social justice activism. They think the point of reading Harry Potter is to learn that “Through reflection and awareness, we can draw lessons on how oppression operates and use those lessons to help develop an anti-racist, feminist, disability justice, queer and transgender liberationist, working class-based anti-capitalist movement”—that is, the Left.

My wife and I don’t want our son educated by Slytherins who fancy themselves Gryffindors, so we walked on. I’m afraid a lot of parents and kids didn’t.

College common reading programs think about reading the same way—that the point of reading is to draw you into left-wing activism. And it isn’t just the college common reading programs—there are city reading programs and county reading programs, and earnest activists at book fairs around the county. It’s important to know that this isn’t just happening on campus.

A college common reading is usually one book, which students read over the summer so they can discuss it during orientation. Common readings are supposed to set academic expectations for incoming students—but they’re also usually run by co-curricular bureaucrats, who use them as a tool in their broader campaign to turn higher education into social justice activism.

The National Association of Scholars has been publishing an annual report on college common readings since 2010. This year we’ve added a lot more data to our report. We’ve gathered and collated information on college common reading assignments for the last 11 years, from 2007 through 2017. We now have information on 732 individual colleges and universities, 4,754 separate assignments, and 1,655 individual texts. Our analysis now draws upon the choices made by tens of thousands of bureaucrats and professors at hundreds of colleges, over the course of half a generation.

Eleven years of selection committees chose the same sort of books. Two-thirds of the texts were different genres of nonfiction. The books are overwhelmingly recent. They almost always espouse progressive politics, and they often call outright for the reader to become a progressive activist. The three most frequently assigned books of the last eleven years are all progressive warhorses—Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacksassigned at 201 colleges in the last decade; Wes Moore’s The Other Wes Moore, assigned at 109 colleges; and Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, assigned at 76 colleges.

But common readings have gotten more radical in the last ten years. A decade ago a typical popular book was Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World—that’s a soft exhortation to progressive do-goodery. Nowadays a popular common reading is more likely to be Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, a rant of anti-white hatred. Common readings are getting angrier.

It’s not easy to change the college common reading system, because it’s part of several larger professional cultures. Common reading selection committees are part of the world of co-curricular administrators, who are deeply committed to progressive activism. Campus common reading programs are also part of a larger world of city and county common reading programs, aimed for the general public, which select much the same sort of books. Community colleges frequently co-sponsor city or county common reading programs.

In New York City, the “One Book One New York” program nominated three college common reading stand-bys in 2017—Coates’ Between the World and Me, Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. One New York finally selected Americanah, a novel that profitably combines the common reading genre’s obsessions with racism and immigration.

Most of these programs are less obviously politicized than their college counterparts—but politicized they are. San Diego has a social justice book review contest attached to its program. San Francisco has an author’s note attached to its materials for the comic book refugee memoir, The Best We Could Do, where the author says, “anti-immigration policies are closing doors on displaced people and separating families currently living in the U.S.  . . . I hope to inspire Bay Area readers not just to have thoughtful and nuanced conversations about these issues, but also to take action.”

What’s at issue isn’t just college reading programs, but reading programs trying to turn every citizen into a progressive hope. Yet we therefore also have greater hope. If we can change college common reading programs for the better, then we have a model for how to reform every common reading program.

NAS recommends strong medicine on how to reform college common readings programs. Legislative oversight committees should recommend ways to remove political bias from common reading programs. A model for this sort of oversight now exists. In 2017, North Carolina passed into law the Campus Free Speech Act, which establishes a Committee on Free Expression. The committee might want to investigate the University of North Carolina system’s common reading programs to see whether they violate institutional neutrality—and other states might consider following North Carolina’s lead with legislation that restores political impartiality to public university common readings.

No legislation can accomplish all that is needed to deal with this alarming national campaign to subordinate individual reading to progressive activism. It’s bizarre to think that the point of cracking open a Harry Potter novel is to learn about oppression and anti-capitalism—but there’s a booth of activists for every book, dementors ready to suck out the soul of every reader who just wants to enjoy a book.

We have to resist—by reading to improve ourselves as individuals, by reading for sheer pleasure, by reading disengaged from any civic duty. We must read escape literature to escape from the would-be jailors of our minds. We must go off alone, to read a good book just for fun.

That, if anything, is our duty.

Image: AdobeSpark

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