Lite Lit for College Comers, Study Finds

National Association of Scholars

New York, NY (October 21, 2014) — American colleges and universities are using freshman summer reading assignments to introduce students to progressive activism, concludes a new report by the National Association of Scholars (NAS).

Assigning a summer reading to entering freshmen is a growing trend at hundreds of American colleges and universities. NAS’s comprehensive study, Beach Books 2013-2014: What Do Colleges Want Students to Read Outside Class? reports on 341 colleges and universities and the 231 books they assigned.

Most of the assignments were contemporary books about illegal immigration, racial identity, global warming, unjust incarcerations, gay and lesbian life, exaggerated fears of terrorism, affirmative action, recycling, vegetarianism, sexism, or wealth inequality.

Findings from the study revealed patterns across colleges:

  • Recent: Of the assigned books, 96% were published in 1990 or later, 92% were published in 2000 or later, and 51% were published in 2010 or later.
  • Politically correct: Multiculturalism was the most popular subject category; social activism was close to the top.
  • A lot missing: Conspicuously lacking were classics and older literary fiction, good modern literature, and history.

Beach Books reported barriers to books of more enduring quality. At many colleges the books were picked by committees more interested in shaping students’ political views than in broadening their minds. And some colleges reported that they had to appeal to “book virgins”—college students who have never read a whole book before. 

NAS makes 12 recommendations to guide colleges in their book selections, and offers a list of 50 suggested books appropriate for common reading. NAS also urges colleges to do more to widen the horizons of incoming freshmen.

NAS executive director Ashley Thorne, the co-author of the report, said, “Colleges can do a better job of inspiring students to take on challenges and read books that they wouldn’t have chosen on their own – books that connect them with generations of other readers and take them beyond what’s popular today. Colleges, if they are willing, can give students that gift.” 

The National Association of Scholars works to foster intellectual freedom and to sustain the tradition of reasoned scholarship and civil debate in America’s colleges and universities. To learn more about NAS, visit

Download the PDF: /images/documents/Beach_Books_10-21-14.pdf


Ashley Thorne

Executive Director

[email protected]

(917) 551-6770

Honorable Mentions

The NAS authors noted that a number of colleges chose books that stood above others. Beach Books 2013-2014 includes a section, “Honorable Mentions,” which commends 19 institutions for choosing books that treat academic subjects (i.e. physics, economics, poetry, philosophy) with depth and detail, or books that take an uncharacteristically hopeful view of immigration, hard work, or life’s challenges. These were:

  • Armstrong Atlantic University: College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be (2012) by Andrew Delbanco
  •  Belmont Abbey College: Bend, Not Break (2012) by Ping Fu
  •  Belmont University: Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes (2008) by Daniel L. Everett
  •  Indiana University, South Bend: Shakespeare’s works (c. 1590-1610) by William Shakespeare
  • Kennesaw State University: Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? (2009) by Michael Sandel
  • The King’s College: Till We Have Faces (1945) by C.S. Lewis; Verse Dramas by Robert Frost
  • Le Moyne College: “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (1853) by Herman Melville
  • Loras College: Three essays on liberal education
  • Mississippi State University: Physics for Future Presidents (2008) by Richard A. Muller
  • Rhode Island College: Pym (2011) by Mat Johnson
  • St. Michael’s College: The Book of Job (c. 1000 B.C.)
  • Stanford University: First They Killed My Father (2000) by Loung Ung; The Art of Fielding (2011) by Chad Harbach; The Outsourced Self: Intimate Life in Market Times (2012) by Arlie Russel Hochschild
  • University of Alabama, Birmingham: Media package related to 150th anniversary of Emancipation Proclamation and 50th anniversary of Civil Rights events in Birmingham (c. 1853).
  • University of Cincinnati: Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? (2009) by Michael Sandel
  • University of Pennsylvania: Book of Rhymes: Poetics of Hip-Hop by Adam Bradley
  • University of Wisconsin, Parkside: Great Tales and Poems (1824-1849) by Edgar Allan Poe        
  • Vanderbilt University: College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be (2012) by Andrew Delbanco
  • Westminster College: Freakonomics (2009) by Steven Levitt
  • William Peace University: Scratch Beginnings (2007) by Adam Shepard

Ivy League and Elite Colleges

Five Ivy League institutions offered common reading in 2013-2014:

  • Brown University (Beautiful Souls: The Courage and Conscience of Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times)
  • Cornell University (When the Emperor Was Divine)
  • Dartmouth College (The River Why)
  • Princeton University (The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen)
  • University of Pennsylvania (Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop)


Other elites included:

  • Duke University (Let the Great World Spin)
  • Georgetown University (In the Shadow of the Banyan)
  • Hamilton College (Evocative Objects: Things We Think With)
  • Lafayette College (In the Shadow of Man)
  • Macalester College (Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World)
  • Middlebury College (The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears)
  • Northwestern University (The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change)
  • Tufts University (Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do)
  • Vanderbilt University (Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide)
  • Vassar College (A Visit from the Goon Squad)


Image: Public Domain

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