Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Summer Reading

Not my summer reading, but the summer reading of college and university students. In the U.S., a large number of post-secondary educational institutions mandate summer reading for those students who have been accepted into various programmes. This sounds like a great idea. And it is - except that the range of reading prescribed is disturbingly myopic.

A report from the U.S. National Association of Scholars puts it this way in a balanced report available here:

In principle, of course, a common reading program could be built on the basis of intellectually challenging works; books of widely‐recognized and lasting merit; books that are milestones of cultural achievement; books of undeniable historical importance; or books of profound artistry. We noted that five of the colleges out of the 290 chose works that plausibly fit at least one of these criteria: Frankenstein, Walden, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (two colleges), and The Communist Manifesto.

What of the selections by the 285 other colleges? The best we can say is that all (or almost all) the selected works have some merit.
Then a few lines later, it diagnoses the problem in terms of American culture's bias toward the present, a.k.a. what's in front of our noses...:
We suspect that the present‐ism that is so prevalent in the common readings reflects an underestimation of the students’ ability to discover connections between the past and the contemporary world. College ought to push students towards making such connections rather than assume that students won’t “get it.”
It makes for arresting reading and I'm sure that this report would be relevant for Canadian universities, at least those (few?) which have summer reading programmes.

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