Florida College Common Reading

David Randall

This article originally appeared in the June 2017 edition of IMPERFECTIOn, the print newsletter of the National Association of Scholars.

Florida College is an institution founded on Biblical principles, which draws more than 80% of its students from spiritual backgrounds based on the congregational practices of non-institutional Churches of Christ. It is located in Temple Terrace, adjacent to better-known Tampa. Since its founding in 1946, Florida College has progressed from offering only the associate’s degree to developing bachelor’s programs ranging from Biblical Studies to Business Administration. It remains committed to having every course and program incorporate Biblical principles.

Florida College also selected what may be the best Freshman Common Reading in the nation for 2016—Pericles’ “Funeral Oration” and Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.” The college strongly encourages incoming freshmen to read both speeches during the summer. A panel of faculty discussed the reading during a fall symposium, and many of the faculty (especially in the English department) incorporated the two works into their writing assignments.

The vast majority of college common reading programs make incoming students read mediocre memoirs or nonfiction written since 2010—usually ones that are more interested in making incoming students progressive than in making them think. The most frequently assigned common reading in 2016 was Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (2014)—24 colleges and universities assigned Stevenson’s polemic against the American justice system. More common readings were published in 2016 than were published before 1990. Only 6 common readings—fewer than 2% of the total—were published before 1900.

Florida College assigned two of those six pre-1900 common readings. If you want to find out best practices for common reading programs, you should look at Florida College.

Why Pericles and Lincoln? We asked Florida College’s Academic Dean, Brian Lewis Crispell.

“This year,” says Crispell, “given the unusually acrimonious general election, along with the continuing military effort to combat terrorist groups, my instinct was to propose a tandem of shorter readings that would focus our students and broader campus community on the nature and meaning of sacrifice for principles set on beliefs in individual liberty and a free society.”

Crispell also stated that, “The parallel between President Lincoln’s poetic thoughts and words with Pericles’s reflections on Athenian sacrifices during the Peloponnesian Wars seemed timely and well-suited to bring out ideas that might refocus us on the value of a liberal arts education in understanding our historical context and the struggles other societies have so often faced when choosing to pursue the ideals of liberty and freedom, particularly in times of war.”

And why have a common reading at all? Florida College started one because back in 2005 its accreditation agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Commission on Colleges (SACS-COC) instituted the reaffirmation standard of a “Quality Enhancement Program (QEP), in order to emphasize a continuing focus on “improving student learning.”

Florida College—and in particular Professors Thaxter Dickey and Brian Crispell—decided to set up a Common Reading as one of the ways to emphasize its increased commitment to liberal arts education.

“We determined that having a Common Reading allowed for an academic focus to begin the year, and one that may well hold through the whole year,” says Crispell. “It also sets a standard for our students—especially our new students—about what a college should be ‘about.’”

Dickey adds further detail about the College’s selection criteria. A common reading “must be accessible to our students, neither too lengthy nor too technical.” He adds that “It should have some recognizable value in a liberal arts education. That means for us that it has stood the test of time.” And Florida College tries to choose books in the public domain, “so as to reduce the cost for our students in purchasing the books over the summer.”

Florida College’s previous selections have set a high standard for their students. They’ve assigned longer works, such as Edwin Abbott Abbott’s mathematical fantasia Flatland (1884) and C. S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man (1943). They’ve chosen shorter works, including the Constitution and selections from the Federalist and the Anti-Federalist Papers. Pericles and Lincoln have good company in Florida College’s Common Reading selections.

Dickey emphasizes that the “idea of a common reading” is important, even though the common readings aren’t read by every student or used by every professor. He says that a common reading “is still valuable to us in asserting the importance that we place on learning and on a liberal arts education. It also makes the point, if the students are attentive, that all learning is connected rather than being merely a chaotic collection of isolated courses.”

And the students do seem to be attentive. Victoria (Morgan) Bingham, a senior history major from Kentucky, appreciates a whole series of the common readings from her time at Florida College. “Frankenstein’s commentary on the ethics of science and Alice in Wonderland’s bizarre charm highlighted aspects of the science and math departments not usually focused on by a literary program,” says Morgan. But she may have gotten the most out of Ayn Rand’s Anthem. “I found it particularly challenging when I read it at the beginning of the semester, so I enjoyed hearing the faculty’s reflections on it in various classes and in the annual discussion panel. It came at the ideal time, because I was taking a political science class that semester and so I found myself contemplating its ideas often.” But it isn’t just a particular reading that Morgan likes—it’s the Common Reading program as a whole. “Somehow, each semester I find myself interacting with the Common Reading in unexpected classes and in debates with my peers.”

Florida College shows that colleges can select Common Readings that introduce students to the best thoughts and words of the past, and that are as timely now as when they were written.

As Crispell says, “If we are not about the pursuit of a valuable body of knowledge, with the liberal arts foundation as our bedrock, for the purpose of serving God and mankind, then I am not quite sure why we are charging tuition.”

Image: Public Domain

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