The National Association of Scholars’ “Beach Books Report”

College “Common Reading Programs” are as “progressive” as you think.

Depending on the institution of one’s choice, those who are planning to enter college for the first time in the fall may be expected to read an assigned book over the summer. That is, many schools have a “common reading program,” a program designed to insure that incoming students read the same book before embarking upon their college career. 

As the National Association of Scholars has amply demonstrated in its recent “Beach Books Report (BBR),” the ideological indoctrination of college students can’t begin quickly enough.

The BBR is a study of 348 institutions of higher learning.  This includes 171 public four-year schools, 81 private sectarian schools, 70 private nonsectarian institutions, and 26 community colleges.  Fifty-eight of these schools were identified by U.S. News & World Report as among the top 100 universities in the country, while 25 are among the top 100 liberal arts colleges. The colleges and universities covered by the BBR report are located in 46 states and Washington D.C.

What the study found is that colleges “rarely assign” classic texts, making “the common reading genre…parochial, contemporary, and progressive.”  In fact, 75% (271) of the common reading books were published between 2010 and 2016 while 94% (327) were published between 2000 and 2016.  

The books were all published during the lifetime of the students. 

As for the most popular subjects and themes, anyone who knows anything at all about contemporary academia won’t be surprised by the BBR’s findings.  

For the academic year 2016-2017, the study’s authors ascribed to the common readings 576 subject labels that are divided into 30 subject categories. “The most popular subject categories,” it states, “were Civil Rights/Racism/Slavery (74 readings), Crime and Punishment (67 readings), Media/Silence/Technology (34 readings), Immigration (32 readings), and Family Dysfunction/Separation (31 readings).”

The BBC also broke the readings down into 251 theme labels and 18 theme categories.  That most of these “register the common reading committees’ persisting interest in ‘diversity,’ defined by non-white ethnicity at home and abroad,” is hardly unexpected to readers of this column.  Some other findings, though, while anything but shocking, are nevertheless telling.

“Many common readings discuss books of which a film or television version exists, an increasing number are graphic novels [what used to be called “comic books”] or memoirs, many have a protagonist under 18 or simply young-adult novels, and a significant number have an association with National Public Radio (NPR).”

Comic books; young-adult novels; books based on popular films and TV shows and associated with _NPR—_this is much of the stuff of common reading programs.

The BBR summarizes its findings: “The themes register most strongly the common reading genre’s continuing obsession with race, as well as the infantilization of its students, its middlebrow taste, and its progressive politics.” 

Indeed. This past academic year, “the most popular themes were African-American (103), Latin American (25), Protagonist Under 18 (25), African (15), and Islamic World (13).” 

For the last three consecutive years, “Racism/Civil Rights/Slavery and Crime and Punishment were the two most popular subject categories,” and “African-American themes were…the most popular theme [.]”  These subjects and themes became even more popular this past year than they had been in the two preceding years.  

The “top books” for common reading illustrate this trend.  The most routinely assigned text is Bryan Stevenson’s, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. This is a work of nonfiction. The theme is “African-American” and the subject categories are “Civil Rights/Racism/Slavery” and “Crime and Punishment.” 

Then there is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ memoir, Between the World and Me. The theme is “African-American,” and the subject categories are “Civil Rights/Racism/Slavery” and “Crime and Punishment.” 

Wes Moore’s memoir, The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates, is another hit.  Its theme is “African-American” and its subject categories are “Crime and Punishment” and “Poverty.”

Malala Yousafzai’s memoir, as written by Christina Lamb, is quite popular. I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban has an “Islamic World theme.”  Its subject categories are “Education” and “Feminism/Sex Discrimination/Women.” 

Of the six remaining most popular books in the common reading genre, the themes are: “African-American,” “Muslim-American,” “Asian American,” “Latin American,” and “Protagonist Under 18.” One book, a fictional novel, doesn’t have a specifically designated theme.

The BBR laments that the “ideologically-constrained common reading genre has become so homogenous that common reading selections have become predictable.” These reading programs are designed to advance a “progressive message” or “dogma through discussion guides, question prompts, and cooperation with ‘social justice’ programs.” They are also meant to “promote activism,” thus neglecting “the virtues of the disengaged life of the mind.”  

This preference for inculcating activism over the love of knowledge for its own sake, ideology over education, has resulted in an intellectual flaccidity that has become an all too salient feature on college campuses.  “Common reading programs make new students’ first experience in college ‘co-curricular,’ and so tell students that the heart of college is not the regular academic coursework but the ‘co-curriculum.’” Their mission statements “usually direct committees to fulfill non-academic goals, such as building community or _inclusivity_” (emphases original). 

For parents who plan upon remortgaging their homes so as to subsidize their children’s four-year (or more) excursion to the university, the National Association of Scholars’ “Beach Books Report” is must reading.