Monday, June 14, 2010

What's good enough for assigned reading?

This article talks about the relatively new phenomenon of asking entering freshmen to read a common book to have as the basis for discussion in freshman seminars. I was struck that the National Association of Scholars in a report deemed many of the books that colleges and university chose as not worthy since they were not classics. Some of the titles included Three Cups of Tea, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Enrique’s Journey and many more. So what is wrong with these titles? The NAS seems to think that the classics of the 19th century and before are the only books worth studying or requiring for students. After deeming only these titles as worthy of study--Frankenstein, Walden, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and The Communist Manifesto--the report states “The best we can say is that all (or almost all) the selected works have some merit. We don’t see the list as comprised of third‐rate writers or writing. There are, to be sure, a handful of choices that look eccentric and are of doubtful merit.”

Mabel G. Freeman, assistant vice president for undergraduate admissions and the first year experience at Ohio State University, says that students have responded to the books that the NAS has critically dismissed in a positive manner. She also states, "We assume that students in their course work have the opportunity to pursue what would be thought of as the classics by the NAS," she said. "What we are trying to do is create a sense of community." I find this interesting because Dr. Freeman sees the freshman reading experience for what it is--a way to bring together a class of diverse students from many different backgrounds around something they will have in common. In no way do freshman reading assignments mean to take away from the study of literature or the classics. The leaders of these programs want to get students to think about current issues and topics that they can relate to in some way. How many freshmen in the fall of 2010 will have a lot to say about the Communist Manifesto? History has already taught us that communism has failed, so why would read this? Maybe it would be helpful in a history class, but it is not really about the world we live in today. Just my 2 cents worth!

I struggle with the question of should our high school students be reading the same things that were read in the 20th century? Although I was once a high school English and Latin teacher, I can see that there need to be some major changes to the literature canon that we ask our 21st century adolescents to read both in high school and in college. It is important to embrace new literature as it appears in a world where information bombards us every day and now anyone can be a published author. I hope to be an advocate for reading common texts to create community in my work with local high schools and with my own university students.

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