Monday, September 12, 2011

The NAS Attack on College Common Reading Programs

The National Association of Scholars is attacking common reading programs again with a new bizarrely titled report, “Beach Books: What Do Colleges and Universities Want Students to Read Outside Class? 2011-2012.”

I criticized the NAS report on common reading programs last year, and even had a superficial debate with them on Fox News Channel.

In this year's report, the NAS repeats the same attacks for colleges asking students to read contemporary books. It claims, “Colleges continue to ignore the best books when they make their selections for common reading. One likely reason for this is that Americans have eroded the distinction between high and low culture.”

Only the worst elitist can imagine that The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (by far the most popular book this year) is “low” culture or a “beach book.” Sadly, the NAS denounces the book as “an effort to create a social controversy on the basis of a long-since settled scientific accomplishment” and smears it because “the writing itself is journalistic, not intellectual.”

The great thing about current books such as The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is that they usually aren't already read in classes, and they offer a highly appealing (and, yes, intellectual) way to bring students into a discussion about science and ethics.

The NAS press release declared,
NAS identified five problems in U.S. society that are amplified when colleges limit students' exposure to good books: 
1. An inability to distinguish "the truth" from "my truth"
2. A tendency to ignore aspects of the world that fall outside the bounds of race, class, and gender
3. A shallow understanding of the human heart
4. A lack of humility and willingness to learn
5. A sense of resentment toward those who are prosperous.
Of course, common reading programs don't “limit students' exposure to good books”--they expand it. But this statement reveals something about the NAS' particular conservative ideology. They seem to think (#5) that the only “good books” are ones that will cause students to love rich people.

The reality of the world is that if you assign a classic to an entire college, most students are going to ignore it. If you ask students to read an excellent book about a contemporary issue and bring the author on campus to talk about it, there's a better chance to have a broader campus conversation about intellectual matters.

The NAS recognizes this problem and suggests, “Bring in an impersonator or an expert on the writings of a deceased author to speak and answer questions.” Oh, good lord. So every college is going to bring in a guy with a Mark Twain mustache to tell us in a fake drawl what Huckleberry Finn is all about?

Instead of dealing with the reality that classic books just aren't desirable reading for most students, the NAS offers a truly stupid idea: “Make reading the book mandatory, and enforce the assignment with a test.”

Exactly how would you do that? Would students who fail the test be expelled from college? And who would do this? At a college with 20,000 students, would you have someone grading 20,000 essays? Would you somehow prevent 20,000 students from cheating on a multiple-choice test (not to mention the fact that standardized multiple-choice tests on literature are the worst kind of dumbing down imaginable)?

The great thing about common reading experiences is that they are voluntary. They send a message to students that reading should be a lifelong activity done for self-improvement, not something limited to classes and assignments and tests.

The NAS adds to its bad ideas with this gem: “Require that students submit a list of new words they learn from the book.” Require how? Will you fail a student who already knows these words and didn't learn new words? These are the kinds of activities I would expect in third grade, not college. I can't think of anything quite so idiotic as reducing a work of great literature to its vocabulary-building components.

Sadly, the NAS' suggestions also ignore what I think would be a great way to improve common reading programs: add a second book. It would be fantastic to have students reading books on a common subject that disagree with one another, to teach students about how to debate different views. Or imagine a college reading a classic book along with a contemporary book that's somehow connected to it. But by sneering at all current books as inherently inferior, the NAS is missing an opportunity to recommend solid books published in recent years where students can speak to a real author rather than impersonator.

None of the books suggested by the NAS seem bad, but neither are the books picked by colleges that are being attacked by the NAS (except for Tuesdays with Morrie). Instead of denouncing colleges for picking good books, they should be criticizing the colleges who haven't adopted one yet and start encouraging an expansion of these programs.

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