Enter a four-year college today as a first year student and more often than not, you will be asked to participate in a common first year reading. It was not always so.
Shared readings have long been part of collegiate intellectual life. Over the past twenty plus years their use, especially in the first year, has exploded. Based in great part by the work of John Gardner, a driving force behind the National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition, common first year readings are now standard operating procedure. Gardner’s ideas and publications have had a major effect on how higher education thinks about the transition of high school student to college student.
Many colleges program a “first year experience” (to borrow from Gardner) because improvements in the first year of study tend to have the greatest impact on bigger institutional goals like retention and graduation. Colleges try to plan, executive, and evaluate all the major factors involved in students’ first year of study. A common reading is usually nested within the FYE and is often a focus in discussion and discovery in multiple courses. In addition, colleges often try to extend the impact of the common reading beyond the classroom. Many institutions choose texts with living authors to facilitate presentations by the writer, further engaging new students.
Today, the first year common reading is a well-established way to achieve distinct but interrelated aims: increase student reading, provide a vehicle for institution-wide engagement, raise the level of academic discourse, and create a program that makes student learning visible. The National Resource Center maintains a database of freshman readings and some publishers have created divisions to serve this market.
I have happily participated in the development, implementation, and evaluation of common first year reads. At Baruch College fifteen years ago our inaugural first year reading was Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, a haunting investigation into the Rwandan genocide. We assigned the book to more than 1,500 entering students, their faculty, and many administrators involved in the first year. Gourevitch spoke eloquently and movingly at convocation. The following year Eric Schlosser came to Baruch and spoke about Fast Food Nation. It was gratifying to be a key player in the development of this program.
Success and popularity bring with them debate and concerns. First year readings are often questioned by those inside and outside the academy. Criticism comes in two broad categories: concern with a particular reading and questions about the broader enterprise of a common reading.
When it comes to the selection of a particular reading, readers flock to colleges and readers like talking about books. The decision of a first-year committee often carries with it institutional weight, freighting any choice with differing expectations from different stakeholders. Faculty and alumni will inevitably question the book and if it properly reflects or reinforces institutional values. Everyone will have – and share – their opinions. Choosing a common first year reading is to invite discussion and debate.
The National Academy of Scholars believes that first year common readings are too often “beach books.” They argue for timeless works whose message is not unduly contemporary or cynical. Interestingly, none of the authors in their list of recommended books is alive. The University of North Carolina has faced public controversy with its choices, as have several other institutions. Stanley Kurtz in the National Review, for example, believes that the selection of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the most popular choice of colleges in a recent year, is an attempt to promote Obamacare.
What is the impact of a common first year reading? The whole effort – from book choice, purchase, reading, and discussion – requires a substantial institutional lift. Purdue University President Mitch Daniels ended their common first year reading program in December of 2013 and saved $75,000. Some of Purdue’s faculty, unsurprisingly, objected. It is very difficult to measure the impact of a common first year reading, particularly since so many are part of a broader institutional first year initiative.
I think that there can be much benefit to a common reading, but not necessarily in ways that have a direct impact on student completion. Reading and learning are essential to higher education. The ability to read widely and critically, in fact, is a key part of what most people think of as college educated. Unfortunately, reading widely and critically is neither explained nor celebrated with anywhere as much passion and zeal as needed. The power of a common reading lies not in the reading of one book – it is in the process of engaging, collectively, with a text and institutionally validating the process of reading, discussion, and criticism.
Reading books does not necessarily lead to knowledge. There is no direct pipeline. Knowledge through reading demands thought, attention, and critical reflection. Deep understanding of a text is often only possible through written argumentation. And even then, certainty is elusive.
Common reading programs establish an environment that supports reading, discussion, and thought to take place. Common readings are signals to new members of the community that reading matters. The utility of a common reading – on its own – is slight. The long-term strength and benefit of a college education often lies in the interrelationship of subject and discipline. It is grounded in the development of students’ reading and thinking skills, which involve obtaining, understanding, contextualizing, and using knowledge across fields and areas. The key question to ponder is not what book an institution chooses for a common reading; it is what an institution and its students do with a common reading.