I read the NAS' latest report, “Beach Books,” denouncing books assigned as common summer reading at various colleges, and I expected them to have a point. I expected to find a bunch of mediocre books. Instead, I looked at the list of books and thought, “What a great collection of books. I wish I had read all these books. I wish colleges had been encouraging reading like this when I was in college.”
No, they are not the classics held in worship by the NAS. No, they are not always my favorite books. But they are serious-minded, well-written books that colleges should be encouraging students to read. Amazingly, the NAS manages to smear the best, and most intellectual, development in higher education in recent years.
The NAS claims, “We are not sure whether the colleges that have created these programs are aware of either the political slant or the triviality that characterizes many of the books they choose.” Triviality? The top books deal with religion and ethics, immigration, Afghanistan, the environment, Katrina, and many more important topics. There's a lot of trivial books out there, but this list has almost none of them.
According to the NAS, “It is hard to find anything on the list that poses even a modest intellectual challenge to the average reader.” Oh, what bullshit. These are serious books. No, they are not academic books (not that the NAS would approve of any of those, either). But if this is what NAS thinks are “beach books,” they need to spend more time on a beach, or look at the list of best-sellers on college campuses, where Nicholas Sparks' The Love Song is #1 but nowhere on the list of common reading programs.
It's not clear that the NAS writers have read the books that they dismiss as anti-intellectual. I'd love to see the NAS writers admit which of the books they haven't read. The NAS condemns the popular book “This I Believe” because of the “disdain for traditional values.” It doesn't appear that anyone at the NAS actually read the book, since the report relies on a few excerpts on the NPR website. It is notable that the NAS report is highly selective, omitting for example “the retired Army lieutenant general believes hard work helps build character, strengthen communities and promote freedom.” If that's not traditional values, I don't know what is. I haven't read the book, either, but I have heard the essays on NPR over the years, and I've found them thoughtful and diverse, and often quite supportive of traditional values. Of course, disdain for traditional values is part of what any college education should include.
The one accurate charge in the NAS report is the accusation of “present-ism.” Yes, these are contemporary books, not the classics. There's a reason for that: all of these common reading programs require the voluntary participation of students. If you start trying to assign homework, like the NAS wants, not many students are going to read it. Perhaps more colleges should try asking students to read classic books. But instead of attacking these excellent programs, the NAS should be encouraging every college to adopt a common reading program.
Instead, they give tacit approval to the right-wing attacks on these programs. The NAS report notes, “On a few occasions, such readings have sparked controversy. When UNC‐Chapel Hill assigned socialist Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed in 2003, a student group, the Committee for a Better Carolina, protested the assignment as an 'intellectually dishonest' attempt to sway student opinion. The students took out full‐page newspapers ads and stirred up considerable public opposition to the assignment of Ehrenreich’s book.”
The NAS doesn't mention the fact that Republican legislators sought to have Ehrenreich's book banned, or that David Horowitz has declared that the use of Ehrenreich's book in these common reading programs is “expressly forbidden under the principles of academic freedom.” Nor do they mention the lawsuit filed a year earlier at UNC seeking to ban a book about the Koran from being used, or the vote of state legislators to ban funding for the program if the book was used.
The NAS claims, “Of the 180 books, 126 (70 percent) either explicitly promote a liberal political agenda or advance a liberal interpretation of events.” The NAS doesn't identify its methodology or what books are deemed “liberal.” Is “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” too liberal? Is “Persepolis”, the graphic novel depicting the authoritarian regime of Iran, too liberal for NAS? Is “Three Cups of Tea”, about building schools in Afghanistan, a liberal plot to undermine America? Of course, the NAS doesn't even regard “Freakonomics”, the libertarian tome, as a conservative book, so there's a clear bias here.
The reality is that leftist political books seem to be excluded from these reading lists. Naomi Klein's “The Shock Doctrine” is probably the most highly regarded progressive book of the past decade, yet it's not assigned anywhere. The same for Thomas Frank's work. Colleges appear to have learned a lesson from UNC: they're choosing centrist best-sellers rather than challenging students with more political work.
Are conservative books excluded? The NAS doesn't mention any contemporary conservative books they think deserve to be included. That's probably because they're aren't any. Conservative intellectual life is dying, and the conservative best-sellers today are the idiocy of Ann Coulter and Glenn Beck, or the far right conspiracy theories of Jerome Corsi. Surely the NAS shouldn't stand for the belief that conservative books ought to be assigned even if they aren't intellectually deserving of inclusion.
What colleges ought to do is use common reading programs to promote the idea of intellectual debate. They ought to move away from the centrist best-sellers and instead offer a reading program with two (or more) books offering sharply opposing views on a particular topic. Unfortunately, the NAS report fails to mention this possibility, just as it fails to offer a serious critique of common reading programs or a condemnation of the book censorship called for by other conservatives.
It's important to remember that common reading programs are an innovation that, even if flawed, represent a great improvement upon the absence of summer reading that existed before they were started. It's time to give these programs the praise they deserve, and the critique they need, but the NAS report falls short in both respects.