One summer when I was an undergrad, my college assigned The Pilgrim’s Progress to all the students. It was, so to speak, a mandatory beach book, not for credit in any course, but meant to be the basis for a campus-wide discussion on the theme of “difficulty”. Reading Bunyan’s 1678 allegory of Christian’s hike to the Celestial City was indeed an uphill challenge for us. That college assignment comes to mind as I’ve recently been looking at trends in similar summer assignments for college students.
Before they arrive on campus this fall, many American college freshmen will already have finished their first assignment. Their colleges have given them a “common reading”, one book that they are all expected to read. Last year, 309 colleges made such assignments. It’s a great tradition, but something curious has happened since my days as a college student. Only eight schools assigned anything published before 1990, and only four assigned books that could by any stretch be considered classics.
Well, at least my former employer Wheaton College assigned Achebe’s Things Fall Apart a couple of years ago — written all the way back in 1958! (But of course many of the students had read it in high school.) Last year the choice met the most stringent recency criterion: Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2011).
Now, I think that both of those are good choices for an all-campus book: they raise a range of vital questions that many different disciplines can address. But Thorne is right to note a somewhat troubling trend. The faculty and administrators who make these decisions carry into their deliberations two unshakable convictions: (a) any book read by the whole campus must above all be accessible, and (b) only the very recent is accessible. If any college were to decline either of those assumptions in choosing their all-campus books, the results might be interesting.