American colleges and universities all assign roughly the same kind of books for summer reading for incoming freshmen: progressive activist nonfiction with one-sided messages published in the last ten years.
These “common reading” programs often follow mission statements “crafted explicitly to forward progressive political goals, such as diversity (affirmative action quotas and propaganda) and multiculturalism (hostility to American culture,” explained a groundbreaking new report from the National Association of Scholars (NAS).
“Where the common reading mission statements require progressive books, the choice of mediocre progressive propaganda is a feature, not a bug,” the NAS report added.
Indeed, not only are most of the required books one-sided and progressive, but the vast majority are also recent: 75 percent of common reading assignments were published after 2010, and only 5.2 percent were published before 1990. Worse, only 1.7 percent of books assigned for summer reading were published before 1900. Authors of these books spoke on campus at 51 percent of the 348 colleges in the study.
From an academic standpoint, this is both terrifying and unacceptable. Colleges are squandering what may be the only chance to have every single student read the same work of literature. Rather than an eye-opening experience, this opportunity becomes an excuse for propaganda.
The NAS report explained the many reasons why colleges end up with these programs — faculty aren’t consulted, mission statements are vague, colleges want to invite authors to speak, et cetera. There is a great deal going on behind the scenes. Still, “the ideologically-constrained common reading genre has become so homogenous that common reading selections have become predictable.”
The NAS report authors wagered in 2016 that Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book Between the World and Me, published in July 2015, would be one of the five most frequently selected common readings for the 2016-2017 school year. It was the second most popular selection.
The report presented a long list of recommendations, not only to get better books, but to improve the way colleges select the readings. Their recommendations would not just improve the readings — they would save colleges money. According to the NAS’s “cautious estimate,” current common reading programs cost an average of $25,000 per year, not include staff time. Their revisions would cut that by 40 percent — to $15,000 per year.
The NAS listed 80 recommended books, and a further 30 for more ambitious college programs. Here is PJ Media’s list, based on the criteria opposite the most common selections: intellectual rigor, introduction to foreign ideas, and age — books that have stood the test of time.
1. The Epic of Gilgamesh (ca. 2000 B.C.).
The great Sumerian epic poem Epic of Gilgamesh presents eternal themes in the context of a world completely different from modern America. It is truly eye-opening to see just how similar modern struggles are to those of the ancients, despite tremendous differences.
2. The Book of Job (ca. 1000 B.C.).
The Book of Job is in the Bible, but that doesn’t guarantee students have read it. This book presents the problem of the suffering of a good man, and how empty theological explanations can sound in the midst of such anguish. Job loses everything, while his wife and friends mock and question him. God provides no answers, and the ending reveals just how different the ancient world is from today.
3. The Dialogues of Plato (ca. 399-387 B.C.).
The ancient Greek philosopher Plato is widely credited with creating the field of philosophy. His dialogues featuring mentor Socrates are engaging and challenge students of all ages. I would recommend the dialogues Apology, Phaedo, and Symposium. These present Plato’s views of philosophy, death, and love, respectively. They are classic, engaging, and perfect fodder for discussion.
4. I and II Maccabees (second century A.D.).
The apocryphal books of First and Second Maccabees tell the story behind Hanukkah, but they also illustrate the ancient world under the Greek influence of Alexander the Great and the empires which followed him. The Jewish struggle for independence highlights the importance of faith and the political realities of a complex world.
5. Confessions by Saint Augustine (398 A.D.).
In the Confessions, one of the greatest minds of early Christianity explains his personal and intellectual struggles. This classic spiritual autobiography is chocked full of important lessons about struggling with different worldviews and mastering self-control. Confessions also rewards multiple readings, so even in the unlikely case that students have read it before, it would still be a boon to reread and discuss.
6. The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400).
Geoffrey Chaucer’s classic anthology The Canterbury Tales provides a glimpse into the world of medieval England. It ranges from high chivalric romance to low farce.
7. Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina (1617).
Galileo’s Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina argued that the Copernican Revolution (that the earth revolves around the sun) was not incompatible with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. This letter shows how a man of science tried to bridge two different worldviews, and opens up debate about whether or not he was successful.
8. Candide (1759).
Voltaire’s classic novel Candide wrestles with the same themes as Job, but from a sarcastic standpoint. It has long been ranked as one of the great satires ever written, and struggles with deep issues. The novel critiques the argument that this is the “best of all possible worlds,” presenting a worldview battle between a particular form of Christianity and a budding atheistic skepticism.
9. George Washington’s Farewell Address (1796).
The United States of America has changed in so many ways since President George Washington left office in 1796. His Farewell Address is particularly challenging for Americans today, as it warns against many things taken for granted in U.S. politics and culture — morality without religion, close ties with foreign governments, hefty government debt, and the meaning of true liberty. Whatever their politics, students will be challenged on deep questions by this piece of history.
10. Frankenstein (1818).
Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein deserves a second look, even if students have already read the novel in high school. The themes of identity and the grotesque nature of human-made life raise fascinating questions.
11. Democracy in America (1835).
Alexis de Tocqueville’s most famous work, Democracy in America explains the elements of freedom and civility in the United States to a French audience. Modern conservative scholars have argued that Tocqueville’s deep insights into the virtues of American freedom and the threats it faced in the 1800s presage a great deal of today’s political battles. This book is challenging and eye-opening for modern Americans, but also accessible to students entering college.
12. The Idea of a University (1852).
John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University delves deeply into what a liberal education is and should be, and how colleges should educate their students. Many of the ideas presented in this book are controversial in colleges today, but students and teachers would be challenged in positive ways by reading this book, and arguing for modern methods over what Newman suggests.
13. Les Misérables (1862).
Victor Hugo’s classic novel Les Misérables tells the story of a convict-turned-businessman in a France racked with poverty and revolution. It is a tale of redemption, adoption, and fatherhood in revolutionary France. While the recent film featuring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, and Anne Hathaway has received a great deal of attention, most American students have likely not read the book, and it does reward a second reading.
14. The Brothers Karamazov (1880).
Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov deals with deep and painful themes, and is perhaps best known for the excerpt “The Grand Inquisitor,” a striking parable about how Jesus would be treated by a church leader. While the book is Dostoyevsky’s magnum opus and his largest novel, selections could be assigned and enterprising students would finish the entire work on their own.
There are many other books that could — and should — be recommended (the NAS included works by William Shakespeare, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, Thomas Sowell, and others), but these are perhaps a strong starting point. Each of these works are intellectually challenging, but approachable enough for college freshmen, and interesting and different enough to pique their appetites.
But these are not just excellent works for college students. Adults and parents should consider them, too. How can Americans expect students to read books they themselves are not interested in?
The NAS report points American colleges and universities in a new direction for common reading programs, and higher learning institutions would do well to take its recommendations to heart. These summer reading assignments present a unique opportunity for students to share a common intellectual experience, and schools should make that experience deep, challenging, and anything but propagandistic.
Anything less is a disservice to students and to their parents, who expect schools to educate, not indoctrinate, their children.