Those Stubborn Classics

Ashley Thorne

This article originally appeared in the National Review Online on November 4, 2014.

Many colleges want their students to have read a book before they start their first semester. Not just any book, but one carefully selected by a committee to represent the college’s ideals and aspirations. Translation: No Impact Man in, classics out.

I am the co-author of the fourth annual National Association of Scholars study of freshman pre-reading assignments at 341 colleges. Beach Books 2013–2014: What Do Colleges and Universities Want Students to Read Outside Class? shows that most of the books assigned in these “common reading” programs are fresh from the printer. More than half were from 2010 or later. Only five of the 341 colleges assigned a book from before 1900.

Colleges exclude the classics for three reasons. First, they say older books areirrelevant. Colleges fail to see how old-fashioned notions about marriage (e.g.,Anna Karenina), class warfare (A Tale of Two Cities), personal morality (Jane Eyre), or slavery (Huckleberry Finn) have anything to do with the world today. They are more interested in the topics du jour — some of which right now are immigration, racism, global warming, the elusiveness of the American Dream, LGBT life, genocide in Africa, “food justice,” and the war in Iraq.

Common reading is designed to mold students’ attitudes on current debates. Many of the readings are memoirs or biographies of social activists, which hint that students ought to follow suit. That’s why at least 68 percent of the colleges with these programs have the author speak on campus. This pursuit of relevance reflects the shift in higher education away from teaching students how to understand the world and toward shaping activists to change the world.

Second, they say classics are too difficult. “Accessible” is the word that common-reading coordinators prefer in describing the ideal reading level. Several have told me that many of their freshmen have never read an entire book before. They say they have to choose books that these ill-prepared students could handle. In the words of one coordinator, “We would never assign Don Quixote” — as if Don Quixote, one of the most widely read and popular books ever written, is over the heads of students with twelve years of schooling behind them.

Third, classics are too privileged. In his criteria for the reading selection, Princeton president Christopher Eisgruber told his faculty that “the book should be something that students can argue with and about; for this reason, I’m inclined to avoid ‘classics’ that students might feel obliged to venerate.” Never mind that books become classics because people have argued about them for a long time, or that the typical undergraduate student has few qualms about voicing his true opinions.

President Eisgruber’s stricture reflects the belief in academia that “underrepresented” voices should now be trumpeted and classics put on mute. The derogation of “dead white men” now means the marginalization of texts and ideas that have shaped Western culture over the centuries. Far from being venerated by intimidated students, these books are increasingly ignored and forgotten.

What if we gave the classics another chance? The few students who are, in fact, introduced to “the great books” in college don’t find them too imperious, too difficult, or irrelevant.

One student who took David Clemens’s Introduction to Literature course at Monterey Peninsula College — and who had never read an entire book before —said that “reading has opened up a whole new world for me. I am glad I finally got introduced into this world.”

Joshua Converse, another student in the course, was so galvanized by his first encounter with these books that he and others in the course began meeting to read more on their own. He later wrote: “We read Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. We read Sappho. We felt and spoke as if we had rediscovered some long-forgotten treasure abandoned by the generation before. . . . The students I came into contact with seemed to react as I had. We felt we’d missed out on something essential by not being exposed to these works earlier.”

Converse, who had served in the Army in the Middle East, rediscovered The Iliad and “understood, finally, that this poem was not only about the Trojan War, but also about humanity and warfare. It might have been any war. It might be every war.”

Students we interviewed for the Beach Books report, by contrast, appreciated the idea but disliked the books that were selected (at their institutions, The Life Before UsThe Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and Gods Behaving Badly) and ended up bonding with their classmates by complaining about how their colleges misjudged.

In today’s colleges, common-reading programs fill a vacuum left by the dismantling of the old core curricula. Students now take a great variety of courses, but no single course serves as a touchstone, a means for all students to read the same things and thereby join a single intellectual community. To build that community, you need good bricks.

That’s why colleges should assign the classics.


Image: unamed // CC0

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