The three most widely assigned books for incoming college students as part of university common reads are about African-Americans suffering from racism, according to a new report.
The National Association of Scholars, a conservative group whose members are mostly American university professors, this week issued its annual report on common reading, a 191-page document titled “Beach Books 2016-2017: What Do Colleges and Universities Want Students to Read Outside Class?”
The report, which looked at common-reading assignments from last school year at 348 colleges in 46 states, categorized the books according to their main subjects and noted trends in genres, publication dates and other themes.
It shows an overwhelming preference for recent nonfiction – three-fourths of assigned books were published after 2010 – and for novels, essays or memoirs about civil rights, racism or issues related to crime and punishment.
According to the report, the most frequently assigned books for the 2016-17 school year were: “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” by Bryan Stevenson; “Between the World and Me,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates; and “The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates,” by Wes Moore.
Moore’s book, the story of two men from Baltimore whose lives go in different directions, was the common book at Kansas State University in 2015. Coates’ award-winning book exploring racial injustice in America was last year’s common read at the University of Kansas.
Over the past decade, common-reading programs have become more popular across the country. College orientation programs increasingly feature books that students are asked to read and later discuss with new classmates.
The annual NAS report found that books about multiculturalism dominate reading selections. The group, which advocates for a more rigorous and traditional college curriculum, says universities’ book choices are too similar, too left-leaning and not sufficiently challenging.
“Many common readings are chosen to promote activism; they scarcely mention the complementary virtues of the disengaged life of the mind,” the report says. “They give no sense of how college differs from the world outside, and why that difference matters.”
KU focusing on diversity
At KU, the past two common books have focused on issues of race. This year’s selection, Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen: An American Lyric,” features poetry, prose and images that explore the individual and collective effects of racism in contemporary society.
Howard Graham, who coordinates the book selection process at KU, said a committee of students, faculty and staff that selects each year’s book considers issues of interest to the campus community.
“One of the factors that we think about is: What are the conversations that are happening on campus right now, and how do we choose a book that becomes part of that?” said Graham, associate director of academic programs in KU’s Office of First-Year Experience.
“There is no conversation happening on this campus or on any college campus that’s more important than the conversation about diversity, equity and inclusion.”
There is no conversation happening on this campus or on any college campus that’s more important than the conversation about diversity, equity and inclusion.
Howard Graham, associate director of academic programs in KU’s Office of First-Year Experience
Coates’ “Between the World and Me” was incorporated into more than 160 sections of classes at KU last year, Graham said, from English to engineering.
“We’re a campus that is talking about how to become a more equitable and inclusive space so all students can succeed,” he said. “So we had a lot of great programming with ‘Between the World and Me,’ and we had broad campus support for that choice.”
Two years ago, KU’s common book, Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms,” coincided with a campuswide ongoing commemoration of the 100th anniversary of World War I.
As part of common-reading programs, most colleges distribute copies of the selected book to freshmen during orientation and urge upperclassmen, faculty members and others in the community to read the books as part of an effort to spark conversation.
A look at more of this year’s book selections at universities in Kansas:
▪ K-State is encouraging students to read “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” by Mark Haddon, a novel told from the point of view of a 15-year-old autistic boy.
▪ Wichita State University’s WSU Reads program has “The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media,” a graphic novel illustrated by Josh Neufeld that tries to decipher the rapidly changing media business and the ways people interact with it. Gladstone is co-host of the National Public Radio program “On the Media.”
▪ Washburn University’s common book is “The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey,” by Candice Millard.
David Randall, communications director for the National Association of Scholars and author of the report, writes that most common-reading programs “aim at forwarding progressive dogma” and that selections are “dominated by mediocre, new books rather than intellectually challenging books.”
In addition, he writes, university common-reading selections have become increasingly parochial and predictable.
“Only a scattering of colleges assigned works that could be considered classics,” Randall writes.
Only a scattering of colleges assigned works that could be considered classics.
David Randall, communications director for the National Association of Scholars and author of the NAS report
“Even in confining themselves to living authors, common reading programs neglect some of the best ones, such as Martin Amis, Annie Dillard, Cormac McCarthy, Alice Munro, V.S. Naipaul, Marilynne Robinson, and Tom Wolfe.”
The NAS report issues “honorable mentions” to nine institutions the group says made “especially good common reading selections.” Among them: Florida College, a small Christian college in Temple Terrance, Fla., which assigned incoming freshmen to read both Pericles’ “Funeral Oration” and Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.”
The report predicts that books by or about Bob Dylan, the American songwriter awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in literature, will be included in university common readings in coming years.
It also predicts more selections inspired by Donald’s Trump’s rise to the presidency, including works denouncing authoritarian leaders or “endorsing resistance and rebellion.”
The report includes a list of 100 “Recommended Books for College Common Reading Programs.” The list includes “Things Fall Apart,” by Chinua Achebe; “The House of the Dead,” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky; “Invisible Man,” by Ralph Ellison; “Ironweed,” by William Kennedy; “Silence,” by Shusaku Endo; and the Book of Job from the Bible.