The Corner

Education

Why Are ‘Beach Books’ So Lousy?

Most incoming college freshmen are told that they should read a book before showing up on campus. This “beach book” tradition goes far back in time — for me it was The Educated Imagination by Northrup Frye in 1969. The book wasn’t trendy or political, but over the decades, campus leftists, always looking for ways to spread their views, hijacked the selection of summer reading assignments. Today, it’s unusual to find a school where the selections are not meant to implant “progressive” tropes in the minds of the students.

An organization that has closely studied the “beach books” phenomenon is the National Association of Scholars (NAS) and Jesse Saffron takes a look at its new report on it in today’s Martin Center article.

A key reason why the book choices are so bad is that the people who make them are mostly Social Justice Warrior–activist types. Saffron explains:

Book selection committees usually are stacked with individuals from campus diversity, sustainability, student affairs, and residential life offices. Those individuals tend to lack the background and expertise, and in some cases the incentives, to choose challenging books of “enduring power and beauty.” These campus bureaucrats often seek to make reading programs build “community” and promote “inclusivity,” and sometimes even encourage political activism.

That’s why the books chosen almost always push some theme that is meant to get students thinking that Western civilization is bad and needs a great deal of state control to make it tolerable.

Another fact about the book selections is that they are quite easy, often written at a level more appropriate for middle-school students than students entering college. A reason for that, according to the NAS report, is that accrediting agencies want colleges to show that they’re achieving “learning outcomes.” Apparently if a college selects a book written to challenge students, that hurts them with their accrediting agencies. Once again we see that college accreditors, rather than ensuring educational quality, actually lower it.

Can anything be done about this? NAS recommends that some serious scholars be placed on the selection committees, dumping the “Student Life” functionaries. It would also help if colleges only admitted students who are capable of reading a college-level book — but that would leave many dorm rooms empty. Perhaps most effective of all, alums could let administrators know that they won’t be writing any more checks until the school stops pushing leftism in its beach-book choices (and in other ways).

Saffron’s conclusion sticks the landing:

Circumstances now, especially in academia, often appear unfavorable to great literature, in particular the Western canon. That’s why the work of organizations such as the National Association of Scholars is so important. A rigorous, passionate defense of these books is not based on political winds, which always are ephemeral. That leaves open the possibility that over time, colleges and students will change course, and seek a more rewarding intellectual path.

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.