Missed Opportunities in College Common Reading: A Response to Brendan Boyle

Ashley Thorne

Dear Brendan,

I am the compiler of the National Association of Scholars’ two studies of college summer reading programs, and I read with great interest your article in Inside Higher Ed, “Tolstoy in the Slaughterhouse.”

I fully agree with you on the importance of offering college students “the intellectual and affective exercise that comes with clambering around the rock terrain of dense, difficult, and distant fiction.” When I was a sophomore in college, the administration announced it was starting a common reading program for all students. It chose Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man: His Masquerade; the accompanying theme was “Trust.” My classmates balked at the idea, complained that the book was ancient and dense, and for the most part, declined to read it. In response, instead of lowering its expectations, the college encouraged students to embrace difficulty. The next year’s book, therefore, was The Pilgrim’s Progress, which includes an episode in which the protagonist is forced to climb a craggy, brutally steep Hill of Difficulty. That year culminated in a student-run, college-wide series of reflections on the subject, such as whether difficulty is inherently good.

My fellow students and I arrived at different conclusions about this, but I came away realizing that difficulty is often good for us, even though we usually view it as bad. College is a good time and place to encounter difficulty. And difficult fiction is a fit means by which to encounter it.

Given how much you and the National Association of Scholars agree, I was surprised by your cursory treatment of NAS's report last year. You quote a line from a press release and accuse NAS of having “no interest...in fiction as such.” The report was at the time the most in-depth and systematic study of these reading programs yet attempted, and we have a second edition of it just released for the academic year 2011-2012.  Last year we did take note of a preponderate liberal political bias in the selections—look at them and judge for yourself—but we absolutely did not recommend that colleges and universities attempt to 'balance' the selections with books that represent conservative bias.  To the contrary, we urged that books be chosen on their intellectual and literary merits and that ideology be set aside.  We were emphatic about this and you have inadvertently given a false account of our position.

You also take issue with our observation that Huckleberry Finn is not a very challenging text. Indeed, the book may challenge conventions and stereotypes, but in terms of reading level, it is accessible to middle-schoolers. You may have missed the line in our report that acknowledged Huckleberry Finn as one of the “works that every educated American should read.”

In this year’s study we noted, like you, the absence of fiction in college common reading programs. Out of 245 colleges and universities with such programs, only 48 assigned works of fiction, while 79 assigned memoirs. Among the reasons colleges seem to favor the memoir are that the genre is familiar to students (high school writing exercises are biased toward personal reflection essays – and memoirs are similar to reality TV); the author often has celebrity status; and memoirs tend to elevate self and opinion over common judgment, authority, and hard-won facts.

Your observation, therefore, that “identity” and “self-expression” are “central to most 18-year-olds” rings true. You ask, “So why give them exactly what they already know, in exactly the nonfictional form with which they are most familiar?” I agree. Colleges have an opportunity to introduce students to higher education, which should draw them outside themselves.

Colleges miss this opportunity both when they focus on self-expression and when they limit their scope to trendy topics. I think you arrive at the root of the problem in saying

A collegiate education can, of course, be taken up with thoughts of the timely—climate-change, the Tea Party, financial markets, and piracy. But there would be something defective about that, precisely because it ignores the way an education must be about the disinterested pursuit of the permanently untimely. And that is what these books, and these first-year reading programs, miss so egregiously. College becomes a kind of intensified continuation of blog- or opinion-page reading. Worse, it becomes training for a life in thrall to the market.

But then you seemed to change your mind when you read Eating Animals, the book by your college friend Jonathan Safran Foer and chosen by UNC this year. All of a sudden, the market was awfully enthralling. Foer’s vegetarian message, you decided, was more important, more urgent, more timely—than reading authors such as Tolstoy, whose book Hadji Murat you’d earlier recommended, in vain, to UNC.

Your hope that readers of Eating Animals would become vegetarians concerns me. Good books should open students’ minds, not try to change their behavior. This is a distinction that has rapidly been eroded by professors and administrators eager to turn students into activists, and I hope you’ll resist the temptation. Colleges should guide students to analyze competing arguments in pursuit of the best one, rather than presenting one side and expecting students to embrace it.

You were disappointed not only that UNC students who claimed to read Eating Animals did not stop eating meat but also failed to understand Foer’s arguments. You concluded, “students simply aren’t very good readers.” This prompts me to ponder what colleges can do to change that. Perhaps they should require a course or workshop as part of freshman orientation or general education on how to read a book well. Competent common reading programs can serve as a practical foundation for students’ college careers, which will be defined largely by how skilled they are at reading books.

NAS’s 2011 report offers a number of suggestions for college common reading programs for choosing better books and making the most of the common reading experience. We also recommend 43 books for college common reading, about half of which are fiction. The books we recommend are not all classics or “Great Books,” nor are they, generally speaking, conservative in outlook. Rather, we sought intellectual diversity, and in fiction in particular, we sought works that exemplify elegance of language and a degree of complexity, along with moral seriousness.

Hadji Murat wasn’t on our list—but your arguments for it are compelling, and perhaps it should be.


Ashley Thorne

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