Remember Rigoberta Menchu? Twenty-five or so years ago, she, and the book “I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala,” were the rage in academia. Menchu had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 for her work advancing the cause of indigenous Guatemalan women, and the book, which she co-wrote with Elizabeth Burgos-Debray, caught on, appearing on mandatory reading lists at schools, colleges, and universities all over the country.
I remember particularly a conference at St. Johns University in New Mexico where the debate topic was which book would have greater educational value, George Orwell's “Burmese Days” or “I, Rigoberta Menchu.”
Enough academic traditionalists were present for Orwell to garner a few votes, but the liberals wanted Menchu. She was relevant. She spoke for the oppressed people who had no voice, for diversity, ethnic and racial justice, for political virtue. She was the perfect counterpoint to the dominant white male culture, so slow, so reluctant to yield some place for minorities, women, native peoples.
Is anybody reading Rigoberta Menchu today? The book is ranked around 32,000 on Amazon, which indicates that it still sells, if modestly. But if the summer reading lists being assigned to the current crop of rising college freshmen is any indication, she's had her time. The culture has moved on to other books of the moment.
Still, as the latest in an annual report on summer reading titles done by the National Association of Scholars shows, the trend represented by Menchu a quarter century ago – the trend favoring social justice, diversity, and immediate relevance – is, if anything, more dominant now. Menchu already represented a turn away from what were called, with a strong element of denigration, the white male classics, a yearning for otherness, for students to be alert to the struggle against racism and oppression, and that trend is ever more reflected in the books college freshmen are being asked to read, and to be ready for visits by the authors and small-group discussions on campus in the fall.
The scholars' group is made up of politically moderate and conservative professors at numerous institutions of higher education across the country, generally united in their belief that an often-intolerant liberal orthodoxy threatens to wipe out genuine intellectual diversity. Not surprisingly, the group’s 191-page report, “Beach Books, 2016-17: What do Colleges and Universities Want Students to Read Outside Class?” comes to an unfavorable conclusion: that the choice of books is “banal and intellectually unchallenging” even as it mirrors liberal and progressive preferences, to the exclusion of contrary ideas.
Progressives would likely applaud the NAS findings as exceedingly good news: Why would any reasonable person be against exposing freshmen to the myriad injustices to which their protected lives have kept them unaware? The institutions tabulated in the NAS study include 58 of the 100 top universities and 25 of the top 100 liberal arts colleges (according to the U.S. News & World Report rankings), so it's a good sample of elite schools. Although the report focused on books assigned last summer, this year’s are essentially the same, revealing a broad and persistent pattern.
Of the books on the required reading list, 75 percent were published since 2010, so the priority is going to topics of contemporary interest and discussion. The timeless classics, it seems, have timed out. Nearly three-quarters of the books are biographies, memoirs and other non-fiction, so novels are rare. The dominant subjects are race, ethnic identity, the ongoing struggle against discrimination, and people’s experiences – especially those of immigrants.
The three books most frequently appearing represent 15 percent of all the summer reading books – assigned by 53 of the 348 schools. They are, in descending order: Bryan Stevenson's “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” Ta-Nehisi Coates's “Between the World and Me,” and Wes Moore's “The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates.” All three are personal meditations by African-American writers about race in America.
To be sure, there are other books, and the more prestigious and exclusive the school, the more likely the assigned books will have a tinge of the classic. Columbia University's required summer book, for example, is Homer's “Iliad.” Princeton assigned Danielle Allen's “Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality,” not a Homer-like classic, but nonetheless described as “a tour de force of close textual analysis” by the New York Review of Books.
After the top three, the next most popular books were assigned by five schools, so there were hundreds of books altogether, but many of them were on the dominant topics; 74 of the titles deal with race or racism, 67 with crime and punishment (an area that often overlaps with race and racism), 32 with immigration. Among the other most popular books were “I Am Malala” by Malala Yousefzai, Rebecca Skloot's “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” and “The Circle,” a novel by Dave Eggers. Somewhat surprisingly, given the amount of media attention, there were few books on gay and lesbian themes.
Needless to say, summer reading is just one assignment of many that college students will have, and among those assignments will, presumably, be more classic book selections, even books written from conservative perspectives, books that challenge the liberal conventional wisdom – maybe. In any case, defenders of the summer reading programs argue that in the real world it's a lot more likely that students today will be engaged by books like “Between the World and Me” or “I Am Malala” than by, say, Jane Austen or George Orwell.
“These may not be the greatest books ever written,” John K. Wilson, co-editor of Academe Blog, wrote while taking the National Association of Scholars to task for its severe judgment of the books on the summer reading lists, “but to call them 'banal and intellectually unchallenging' is untrue and unfair.”
Wilson allows that “centrist liberal approaches dominate the reading lists,” but he continues: “It's difficult enough to get college students to read books in classes where they are called upon to discuss them and are graded for their understanding. That's why college reading programs are designed to appeal to students by addressing current issues and bringing authors to campus to speak to them directly about their work.”
Perhaps, but that explanation skirts an important issue: the implicit indoctrination into a dominant political culture that the reading list choices indicate. The summer reading is first-year students' introduction to their college or university. Jonathan Haidt, founder and director of Heterodox Academy, which campaigns for greater intellectual diversity, says freshmen are “actively trying to understand their new culture,” getting a sense of “the prevailing norms and values.”
Those prevailing norms and values can be summed up in a few political convictions, among the most important of them: that the United States suffers from “systemic racism” and needs fundamental changes in both public attitudes and in its treatment of minorities. The idea that is not prevalent either in the summer reading or on campus in general is: The United States has made tremendous strides toward civil rights and equality, to the point that the charge of systemic racism as the chief characteristic of the country is no longer valid.
Theoretically, in the discussions about the summer books that will take place on campuses in the fall, students are free to dissent from the “centrist liberal approaches.” But these students aren’t clueless. They can see that in the real world, even tenured liberal professors who try that are attacked and threatened.
“Given the now-widespread recognition that many of our elite schools offer their students hardly any political diversity in the classroom, and given the rising frequency of aggressive protests against speakers whose politics are not left of center, it seems like a foolhardy idea to assign a summer reading that amplifies these problems,” Haidt says. “At very least, universities should not be visibly taking sides in the left-right culture war that is now tearing America apart.”
Certainly, whether one favors the books of the current summer reading lists or not, there seems little question that they reflect the importance placed on the concept of social justice and the implicit encouragement of student activism. The universities' explanations for their reading choices seem rather unambiguously to reflect this reality.
Illinois Wesleyan University, for example, presents its choice of a summer reading book this way: “In response to IWU's ... commitment to diversity and social justice, the Advising and Summer Reading Committee ... selected ‘Between the World and Me’ by Ta-Nehisi Coates for the 2017 Summer Reading Program.” UCLA, which also chose the Coates book, said, “The Common Book Program allows students to share and understand diverse perspectives, build community, and critically consider their role in creating a just society.” The University of Louisville says its summer reading “promotes self-discovery and diverse ways of thinking and being.”
It is rare to find a college or university statement on summer reading where the words “diverse” or “diversity” do not appear. These terms have become boilerplate expressions by which an institution affirms its political virtuousness, its membership in the club of the progressive and the good.
In practice, these phrases are code words for the liberal-left point of view in the same way that the word “freedom” in conservative circles means small government, less regulation and a reliance on the free market – though these are ideas pretty much left out of the summer reading.
Of course, not all colleges and universities are the same; there are even a few that have not established “diversity” as the universal goal, but see the job of education as the transmission of knowledge and truth, not encouragement of social justice and political activism. Some schools also require students to read the classics during their freshman year, the books whose main legitimizing attribute is that they have lasted, spoken to people from one generation to the next.
In choosing books that are almost entirely contemporary, of whatever political persuasion they may be, the summer reading programs have essentially abandoned the idea that there are these classic works that every educated person should know.