Why Are American Universities Shying Away from the Classics?

Ashley Thorne

One summer when I was an undergrad, my college assigned The Pilgrim's Progress to all the students. It was, so to speak, a mandatory beach book, not for credit in any course, but meant to be the basis for a campus-wide discussion on the theme of "difficulty." Reading Bunyan's 1678 allegory of Christian's hike to the Celestial City was indeed an uphill challenge for us. That college assignment comes to mind as I've recently been looking at trends in similar summer assignments for college students.

Before they arrive on campus this fall, many American college freshmen will already have finished their first assignment. Their colleges have given them a "common reading," one book that they are all expected to read. Last year, 309 colleges made such assignments. It's a great tradition, but something curious has happened since my days as a college student. Only eight schools assigned anything published before 1990, and only four assigned books that could by any stretch be considered classics.

For American college students, 1990 appears to be a historical cliff beyond which it is rumored some books were once written, though no one is quite sure what. Why have US colleges decided that the best way to introduce their students to higher learning is through comic books, lite lit, and memoirs?

For the last three years I have been tracking what colleges do in this vein and reading their rationales. This week my organization published Beach Books: What Do Colleges and Universities Want Students to Read Outside Class? It documents the obsession with the present that has overtaken American higher education. The faculty and administrators who devise these programs seem to think that unless the living author can stroll into the classroom and explain what she had for breakfast this morning, the students will be unable to "relate" to her written words.

I exaggerate, but only a little. The most important consideration for most of the colleges is picking a book whose author can come to campus. The top common reading authors last year were Rebecca Skloot (author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks), Wes Moore (author of The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates), and Warren St. John (author of Outcasts United), all of whom have agents who book their campus appearances. Consider that Skloot spoke at nine universities this spring.

Popular common reading authors don't come cheap. California State University, Channel Islands budgeted $14,000 for its speaker fee to Junot Diaz, author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Some authors market add-ons. Warren St John offers a discussion guide for students and "best practices" for teachers for his popular Outcasts United. Skloot also provides a handy teacher's guide, a timeline, and even a jeopardy game ("Perfect for classrooms!").

The marketing typically builds on the image of the contemporary author as an intrepid hero. That can backfire, as the former darling of common reading, Greg Mortenson, found out when his story about his building schools for girls in rural Pakistan, Three Cups of Tea, was exposed as a fraud (Mortenson contests those claims). In a blink, he became a very uncommon choice for common reading.

Another aspect of the college mania with the contemporary is the focus on trendy themes. Vegetarianism is in full leaf. Books like The Omnivore's Dilemma, Farm City, and Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat crowd this niche. Hurricane Katrina also continues to make waves. Wading Home, Zeitoun, and A.D.: New Orleans after the Deluge exemplify this soggy genre.

A subtle kind of advocacy for Obamacare may be behind the popularity of Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which tells of Skloot's quest to find about the poor black woman whose tumor cells became a mainstay of medical research. The book depicts the injustice of the medical establishment that has left Lacks' descendants mired in poverty and without health insurance.

Racism is probably the most commonly touched chord in the common readings. Of course, there are great works of literature such as Othello that might serve to introduce students to that, but the emphasis in the common readings is on indicting contemporary society, not on discerning an age-old affliction.

Yet another reason why colleges harvest only new growth in the book vineyard is the idea that students are ready for only the most tender shoots. Defenders of the choices say they want "accessibility" and "relevance." Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, and even Zora Neale Hurston just don't make the cut when it comes to relevant social issues. In response to critics, some of the colleges say that the books they pick are likely to be the "classics of the future", but the turnover among the choices from year to year suggests either that we are due for an unprecedented avalanche of new classics or that most of these hunches are off the mark.

British readers are likely to find the American obsession with contemporary literature odd. Perhaps especially so because most American students have not been introduced to a literary heritage in high school, nor are they likely to know it in college unless they seek out certain classes.

The choice of a recent book that is often the only book students will have in common with one another points to the death of a shared literary culture. To the extent that colleges want to approach that culture, they display willful selfishness in confining their sights to the present. Contemporary books are worth reading, but their richness is many times increased by the knowledge of what came before. That knowledge is evanescent.

This article originally appeared on The Guardian on August 25, 2013.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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