College Reading Lists: “What We Have Loved, Others Will Love”

First year reading lists, college reading lists, tend to stir up controversy.  The so-called Great Books have been challenged, tossed out, revised, and revisited in one form or another. Many colleges and universities have attempted to increase diversity and multiculturalism by revamping “traditional” (i.e., old-fashioned) reading material.  One tendency has been to refurbish humanities curricula as “contact zones.”   However, questions still persist about racial and ethnic inclusiveness,”the Canon,” aesthetic tastes, generational tastes and habits, and “high vs. low art.”  Should college students read William Shakespeare, James Joyce, Henry James, and Jane Austen or Sherman Alexie, Junot Diaz, and Jhumpa Lahiri? Where does James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, and Ta-Nehisi Coates fit in?  Should colleges assign “outmoded” print textbooks or turn to multi-modal media such as e-texts and digital platforms?

Another aspect of the debate is whether colleges and universities “dumb down” reading lists in a strategic McCollege approach to multiplying profits and servicing  consumers.  In recent years, student retention and productivity rates have been on the decline.  Colleges admit a lot of new students but those admitted often don’t graduate.  They acquire loan debts and then disappear.  Many fresh college admits don’t complete the first year.  This has prompted many colleges to establish costly “first year experience” programs to motivate retention.  In any case, academic conversations these days must include the language of “student persistence” and “student success.”  Professors emphasize ratiocinated “learning outcomes.”

In a Chronicle of Higher Education article entitled “Students Will Rise When Colleges Challenge Them to Read Good Books,” Ashley Thorne argues that professors need to “plan for the students you wish you had” by assigning challenging reading material.  Many of the 29  respondents to the article disagree with Thorne and argue the opposite claim: “Plan for the students you actually have, not those you wish you had, or think you used to have, or think you used to be like.”  This debate is hard because both sides have valid points.

Of course, Thorne’s view is not novel or unique.  Harold Bloom, a professor at Yale University, has championed the Western Canon seemingly since dinosaurs trudged the earth.  In fact, Bloom sincerely tears up when he ponders a general literate population that has yet to absorb the wisdom of Shakespeare’s Falstaff or muse upon the existential dilemmas of Hamlet. Also, folks such as David Bartholomae, a composition specialist at the University of Pittsburgh, argues for challenging reading in English classes.  This is part of students negotiating “academic discourse” and “inventing the university.”

Bartholomae’s and Petrosky’s Ways of Reading anthology gathers challenging essays from diverse sources.  It’s a controversial anthology in that most composition instructors maintain that it demands a lot of work from teachers and students alike.  The prospect of assigning it to first year students can be risky and terrifying.  Why not adopt a textual path of least resistance? Why would (especially untenured) professors who must be concerned about student evaluations adopt a text that could potentially alienate students and make them feel “lesser than”? After all, these are students who likely did well in high school by earning decent GPA’s and SAT scores.  Aren’t they entitled to a fair and equitable access to education?  Why adopt a textbook that could deal them an esteem-crushing, Thor-like hammer blow to their noggins?  Not because they deserve it, presumably.

Can students cope with challenging work?  Do their brains explode?  Does hard reading material diminish esteem or empower students for future academic success?

David Denby, a film reviewer for the New Yorker magazine, recently published a book entitled Lit Up that addresses these questions.  He went into several high schools and reports on what teachers have assigned and what students have read.  His findings are fascinating and almost incredible.  It’s amazing what students can do, and most importantly, what stimulates them.  They can read and write about a wide variety of imaginative literature, not only print nonfiction.  Denby’s book is inspirational in that it shows us what’s possible in American education.

I agree with Thorne.  However, as an educator I cannot plan for the students that I wish I had. This would make me vulnerable to false prophesying and petty wish-fulfillment. Also, I cannot readily dismiss what it was like for me as a novice college student. In my own case, I was a mediocre student when I started out.  I was clueless.  I could hardly read a city map not to mention sophisticated texts.  But I tried.  I persevered somehow.  When I was a freshman, I’ll never forget the hardship and joy of grappling with Plato.  I’ll never forget crying at the conclusion of Beowulf, a text that was required in a survey literature class.

I don’t think it’s wrong to assume that many students now are similar to the student I used to be.  It’d be erroneous to dismiss the complicated realities of academic underpreparedness.

But I believe we must raise the bar.  We must offer students access to college level educational materials that they would not have access to on their own outside the classroom.  Nonfiction or fiction?  Plenty of both!  Students need to be stimulated with imaginative literature.

Plato and Aristotle, Homer and Shakespeare, Ellison and Anzaldua.

Students need to be challenged and they need to feel like college students. Presumably, this is a major reason why they’re in college.  They want a “felt sense” of the college experience.  This goes beyond frats, sororities, and binge-drinking at parties.  They want to “fit in” by being like those who have come before them, the impressionistic, imaginary models of what college student are like.  Often, as they know, college is hard and tough-going.  By lowering the bar and teaching to “where students are at” we attempt demystification at the expense of genuine rigor and experience.  We invite students to run a race without hurdles, believing that the race itself is hurdle enough.  But hurdles can actually bolster one’s experience, provide a framework of goals, and issue self-satisfaction upon achievement.

I refer readers to a deeper argument in favor of college-level reading lists, Helen Vendler’s essay “What We Have Loved, Others Will Love.”  Surely, the reading lists debate won’t be settled any time soon.  But let’s think it over…





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