On “The Life of the Mind” and Its Critics

Across the country this summer, first year college students all across America will be participating in the “Life of the Mind,” an annual event in which a university selects a book and asks students to read it before classes begin. The idea is that the hundreds or thousands of incoming students will have some shared reading experience in common that pertains to “the life of the mind” – the academic and scholarly world that they are about the enter into. While the books are different for each university, most will integrate the books in a similar manner: workshops, seminars, and discussions that focus around the selected books.

Universities typically select recent, relevant, and engaging books that are meant to draw in today’s reluctant reader – those who would rather read their Facebook feeds for hours on end than crack open a printed book.

The authors of the NAS report

The National Association of Scholars think this is terrible – not so much the program but the books they are choosing. They level 14 charges against the “Life of the Mind” series based on what amounts to traditionalist opinion rather than actual scholarship. They looked at a number of universities’ book choices during the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 academic years and compared them to their own assumptions of what should be taught. To me, most of these charges are unfair and extremely subjective, not to mention that their findings seem to be too harshly applied to a single book choice which, for some reason, the authors feel will affect students’ entire academic lives. My post is meant to point out these flaws, with my main argument against many of them being, “So, what?” as well as, “Yeah, so?”.

You can read the original report here and here, entitled “BEACH BOOKS: 2014-2016 What Do Colleges and Universities Want Students to Read Outside Class?”.

Below is an overview of their arguments, with my comments in blue.

The Findings

College common reading programs are:

  1. Dominated by Mediocre, New Books. Most common readings are recent, trendy, and intellectually unchallenging books. Who decides what mediocre means in books? Why is “I am Malala” mediocre and “Garbology” unchallenging? To the last point, incoming first year students are about to be challenged in every class where a professor can help them make sense of dense material. Does reading meant to energize and engage them for the first time in academic life have to be so challenging? And how is challenging defined? Shakespeare is challenging because it is written in an archaic style of English. Plato is challenging because it is written in a more difficult register of English and it deals with philosophical elements. Isn’t “Becoming Nicole” challenging because it confronts our preconceived notions of gender?
  2. Predominantly Progressive. The assigned books frequently emphasize progressive political themes—illegal immigrants contribute positively to America, the natural environment must be saved immediately—and almost never possess subject matter disfavored by progressives. Yeah, so? Illegal immigrants. The environment. Racism and civil rights (the most common subjects – what they seriously call “timely propaganda”). These are things we have to confront every day. We all have different feelings and opinions about them. What is wrong with reading about modern realities? The classics (what the authors are mostly arguing for being read) are important but only insofar as they can be help us understand and analyze modern life. That means we must also read about modern life. In addition, many first year students are also first generation college students who come from the very backgrounds that these topics touch on. Validating these students’ experiences by sharing stories like theirs can only help these students succeed whereas immediately confronting them with what many perceive as “dead white men” readings could serve more to alienate them. Again, the classics are important, but they need to be read voluntarily, not forced.
  3. Meant to Build Community. Colleges see their common readings more as exercises in community-building than as means to prepare students for academic life. Oh no! Not community. Students were supposed to be prepared for academic life in high school. That probably didn’t happen though. One book is not going to fix this.
  4. A Homogeneous Market. A profitable common reading genre has emerged, in which publishers and authors market a homogenized product to a highly predictable market of college selection committees. Students are the captive readership of this market. I’ll give you this one. When market forces drive pedagogical decisions, you are right to be suspect. However, these books were not written to satisfy this market, so you can’t blame the books or the content – only the publishing companies and university decision makers. This argument is sorely misplaced.
  5. Enduringly Popular. A significant minority of colleges abandon their common reading programs each year, but so far they have been replaced by other colleges starting new common reading programs. So, what? How is this a bad thing that these books are popular? And how is it bad that these reading programs continue, likely due to the fact that students are actually enjoying these books. Students. Enjoying books. Isn’t that one of the major problems of modern life – people now hate to read. Why stop something that seems to actually hook students into reading just because they are not reading what you think they should: books that remain enduringly popular for you.

The Facts

  1. Recent: More than half of common reading assignments (58% in 2014, 60% in 2015) were published between 2010 and the present. Only 12 assignments out of 738 (1.6%) were published before 1900, and another 5 (0.7%) between 1900 and 1945. So?
  2. Nonfiction: 71% of assignments in 2014 and 75% of assignments in 2015 were memoirs, biographies, essays, and other non-fiction. Again, so?
  3. Author Speaking: In 2014, 53% of colleges with common reading programs hosted personal appearances by the authors, and in 2015, 54% of colleges with common reading programs had author appearances. This sounds amazing! What better thing to do than read a good book and then hear the author speak?! Would you be railing against this if they reanimated Shakespeare and got him to speak? Or if your living favorites came? Just because you don’t like these authors and their books doesn’t mean their coming is a negative. Plus, this could get students in the habit of attending other speakers’ lectures. I fail to see the problem here.
  4. Not Mandatory: In 2014, 29% of colleges required students to read their common reading. In 2015 the figure was 28% of colleges. It’s not mandatory likely because they don’t want to force students to do reading when they know students have four years of hard mandatory labor reading in front of them. I’m guessing – I have not found the data – that these programs continue to exist despite being voluntary because the books are engaging. I’d venture to say that if you switch to mandatory classics for pre-college reading, these programs will swiftly disappear. Save that for the English lit classes. Students will take them. Students will love them. But, not now. Not here.

The Characteristics

  1. Almost No Classics: Only a scattering of colleges assigned works that could be considered classics. With few exceptions, the hundreds of common reading programs across the country ignored books of lasting merit. I’ve already stated that I think classics are important, but they are better served in English lit classes where students can have a better, more intensive focus with feedback from an expert rather than contend with the books on their own before they have even started college. That’s not the point of “Life of the Mind”. It’s supposed to engage them and make them more active readers. As we say in ELT, reading is caught, not taught. And you can catch more fish with live bait than dead bait. One final thought: who is to say the books chosen for the “Life of the Mind” have no lasting merit? Can you predict the future?
  2. Civically Engaged: Common readings are overwhelmingly chosen to foster civic engagement; they scarcely mention the complementary and equally valuable virtues of the disengaged life of the mind. They give no sense of why or how college differs from the world outside, and why those differences are valuable. How could civic engagement be a bad thing? And why is reading about the outside world – the real world that college is supposed to be preparing students for – why is this not valuable?
  3. Nothing Foreign: Classics in translation were nearly absent—and so was anything modern in translation. Even common readings about foreigners generally were written in English, not translated from a foreign language. This is perhaps the only point you make that I fully agree with.
  4. No Modern Classics: Even in confining themselves to living authors, common reading programs neglect some of the best ones, such as Martin Amis, Wendell Berry, J. M. Coetzee, Annie Dillard, Alice Munro, V. S. Naipaul, Philip Roth, Wole Soyinka, and Tom Wolfe. We’ve discussed this already. The modern books these students are reading are perhaps classics in the making. Wait. Modern classics? Please define this oxymoron and how you can become part of this genre. Why isn’t Chuck Palahniuk or Tom Robbins on this list? These are my modern classics.

I could go on and give my comments on their suggests – all as equally subjective and ridiculous as the “findings” above, but you can see where all of this will go. These authors – scholars and experts in their field no doubt and with way more experience and accomplishments than myself – still have no right to criticize book choices with such narrow-minded claims. Show me the data that says these books drop students’ GPA. Show me the data that these have negative effects on reading comprehension or first-year success. Show me the data that says that not reading classics makes someone an inhuman monster. Then, maybe, I can get behind your conclusions.

The authors seem like the ilk that would correct your grammar in public and have mini-strokes if you used singular “they”. Their subjective and non-scholarly drivel should not be a report by the National Association of Scholars who “upholds the standards of a liberal arts education that fosters intellectual freedom, searches for the truth, and promotes virtuous citizenship“. Much of this report reads as the antithesis of their mission statement.

This report could have been written by Statler and Waldorf, perched high above in the balcony chastising the masses below, heckling those who are at least trying (to engage less than avid readers with something interesting) while pining for the good old days (where students were seen, not heard, and “Understanding Poetry” [by J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D.] is the unspoken gospel). I don’t usually write outside my own field (English language teaching). But, to quote a classic, “I felt destroying something beautiful”. And I felt like going on a rant.