one book, one campus, one controversy

Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory who has frequently written about the politics of culture, thinks the growing trend of common reading programs on campus – often tied to new student orientation – conceals an ideological purpose. As he writes in the Chronicle’s Brainstorm blog:

…you don’t have to look very far to find selections that bear an ideological motive. Freshmen at Johns Hopkins scored a dismal 62 percent on the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s civic literacy test. And yet, when it came time to choose a book, they picked Beverly Daniel Tatum’s Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, which presses home “the reality of racism in our society” and the incognizance of white people….

In these selections and rationales, academics tip their hand. The mottos of colleges are filled with “truth” and “knowledge,” but the focus here runs elsewhere. For them, it’s not about knowledge. It’s about identity, or rather, about dislodging and disturbing “privileged” identities. Academics want 18-year-olds to question their egos, to apply critical thinking to racial and sexual and class selfhood. They care more about student attitudes than student ignorance, and with so much moral certitude, they routinely cross the line into coercion.

I’m a little puzzled about how choosing books that focus on minority experiences or race is coercive, other than that it may be difficult for an incoming student to make a case for racism, and it does suggest that the schools involved believe race is an important issue worth talking about. Would it be coercive to dicuss Elie Weisel’s Night because students would be forced to believe the Holocaust happened and it was not a good thing?

The English department at the University of St. Thomas has for many years invited the entire campus to join in reading one of the books assigned in a freshman course. This year it was Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a 1985 novel about a dystopian future in which religious fanatics are in control. A conservative columnist for the Star Tribune wrote “If you’ve ever wondered where the idea comes from that colleges and universities have become liberal indoctrination camps, well, it comes from rituals like this.”

Rituals like reading a book together and discussing it. Now, that’s dangerous!

Well, guess what, kids: there’s going to be a fair amount of that in the next four years! And there won’t be a single right answer you can put on the test, either! The only test is in how well you read the book and articulate your own response to what you’re reading.

In fact, mingling the kind of pleasure reading that a community reading program offers with academic forms of reading is a tricky move for incoming students, not because they have to defend themselves for being not oppressed, or being devout Christian, but because it’s hard for incoming students to know whether it’s “for school” or if they can talk about these books the way they talk to their friends about music. It’s a funny, often awkward collision of reading cultures. And because there’s so much emphasis on just one book, it’s easy to read enormous cultural significance into the reading selection.

But the idea is to give students a chance to get to know each other by discussing a book they’ve read, and to make it work it needs to be a book about which readers can disagree. It’s not a test with a single right answer. The reader’s interpretation is open to debate, and that’s the whole point.

And not an inappropriate beginning to a college education.

(cross-posted from Free Exchange on Campus)

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