by Jessie Roberts
Ashley Thorne co-authored Beach Books: What Do Colleges and Universities Want Students to Read Outside Class? (pdf), an analysis of the summer reading 309 American colleges assigned their incoming first-year students during the 2012-2013 academic year. The major findings:
1. Ninety-seven percent of colleges and universities chose books published in 1990 or later.
2. The most popular book by far was The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
3. Politically-themed books abounded.
4. Very few of the colleges with common reading programs chose classics.
The top two subject categories were Science and Multiculturalism/Immigration/Racism, and the top genres were memoir and biography. Some book types were notably missing from common reading assignments. Classic texts and books published before 1990 were scarce, and ﬁction was far outpaced by nonﬁction. There were no classics of history; no biographies of, nor autobiographies, speeches, or writings by, American political leaders; no works by ancient philosophers; no works of the Enlightenment; no classical works of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or Confucian thought; and no scientiﬁc classics.
Thorne elaborates on the study:
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. … 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. …
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.
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