The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention."...  ...Sir Francis Bacon.

Commentary of the Day - June 18, 2010:  Sometimes a Book is Just a Book.   Guest commentary by Beverly C. Lucey.

An organization called The National Association of Scholars has complained about the practice followed by many colleges and universities of assigning or suggesting a single book to be read by their entering freshman before or during orientation.  It's not the book itself, however, that garners negative attention from this group.  Those colleges that follow the practice generally assign a book that is considered accessible to their particular students in the summer before their lives are about to change in the four or more unpredictable years ahead.  One book!  This book that their entering class might use as a common starting point for self-directed learning, usually is followed up with some beginning efforts in critical thinking when the students enter their general education courses.

What could it be that the National Association of Scholars objects to?   It turns out that they've done a study and have decided that almost all of these books could be considered politically liberal.  Aha!  A novel, a memoir, a narrative about a current issue has a bias, a leaning, a tilt.  Oh, dear!  The members of the National Association of Scholars are united by their mission statement: "Scholars and citizens working together to re-civilize higher education."

Far be it from me to say that entering college freshman arrive on campus especially civilized.  Some might still be hung over from Labor Day parties.  If they all read a book over the summer while also having goodbye get-togethers with a bunch of people they won't care about by their tenth year reunion, then my impulse, as an instructor of freshman composition is to do a little dance.  Just a little one, with proper academic decorum.  I'm too used to having 40% of my students tell me they never read unassigned material.  In fact, this same percentage of my students assert that they don't like to read at all.

"Why are you here?"   I ask.

"I don't know," many report.

So, when The National Association of Scholars complains about reading assignments, I want to know more.

"The founders of NAS summoned faculty members from across the political spectrum to help defend the core values of liberal education," they say.

So, some uses of the word "liberal" are more equal than other liberal contexts.  I can wrap my head around that.  Besides, if an organization, just starting, can summon faculty from across the political spectrum, they seem to have gotten off to a powerful start. "Core values" are important to me.  I do believe I have some.  Most places of learning have some.  Even diploma mills have some.  Although the latter's core values seem to be: A diploma is valuable.  We're willing to sell you one to enrich ourselves, and maybe you, as well, as long as you're willing to lie.

The National Association of Scholars  say that the college community "assumes that undergraduates arrive on campus bearing a benighted inheritance -- the values of traditional American culture -- that must be replaced by more enlightened attitudes.  Students must confess their racial, sexual, and other prejudices; admit that American society is, by its nature, oppressive; and pledge to promote specific forms of social and political change.  In short, the "student learning imperative" aims at winning converts to an orthodoxy.  The imperativists offer thought reform, not education." 

Oh, language.  Here I thought 'imperative' meant something we ought to consider doing, right now, because it's important.  Not important as in must call Vickie to remind her that you are meeting at Chilis not Applebees important, but making considered actions that you believe in your moral center will improve the world we live in.  Ethicists use the term imperativist as something like the emphasis on moral laws, duties, obligations, prohibitions, and the like.  I'd pay good, hard earned tuition fees if my kid could get a degree and graduate with that kind of moral center.

Most of the Association's concerns seem to revolve around dorm life and reveal their disdain for the term 'community building'.  It seems residence halls are where the hard core imperativists are.

What's the issue around assigning one book over the summer for everyone to talk about?

Inside Higher Ed in its June 4, 2010 issue explains The Association objects to the clear liberal bias in the choices for said assignments. Critics complained about a book that attempts to acquaint students with a view of what the Qur'an (Koran) does and does not stand for.  The next year the same university had to go to court to defend its choice of Nickel and Dimed, the Barbara Ehrenreich book on the working poor.  Shame on Chapel Hill for hoping students might get to thinking about either of the issues brought up in each book.

No matter what we read, we approach material with a variety of view points.  I've lead enough class discussions to know that an essay I might think is obviously promulgating one view, hits students very differently.  That is why many have such difficulty evaluating any kind of bias on websites, never mind reading material.

The Association notes, "...Of the 180 books, 126 (70 percent) either explicitly promote a liberal political agenda or advance a liberal interpretation of events.  By contrast, the study identifies only three books (less than 2 percent) that promote a conservative sensibility and none that promote conservative political causes."

Subjects noted as 'liberal' are immigration, the Holocaust, building schools in Afghanistan, an over abundance of books about Africa, and five unnamed books about dysfunctional families.  Books about environmental issues rounded out their concern...because we know how politically biased science is.  Science and the scientific method?  Not fair and balanced?  Just ask U.S. Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.)

Faculty who were interviewed for the article make the point that books written since members of the incoming class were born, are more likely to be both accessible and of interest to students.  Also, campus speaking programs are much more likely to attract an audience if the author of the assigned book is, well, not dead.

Students will then disperse into their majors, hang around with people who share their interests, and take courses with challenging material that will be guided by experts in the field.  Some of that material, even within a person's major, even with an excellent professor might still kill the spirit of a student.  As an enthusiastic English major, no one could then, nor could today, make me think that Romantic Prose is worth my time.  I've got too many books to read and life is short.

Still, a book is a good place to start making the transition into academic life.  While many of us can point to one book that has been eye opening, provided a new look at a subject we thought we knew well, or turned out to be truly life changing, it's definitely not going to be the same book.


2010, Beverley C. Lucey.
Beverley C. Lucey is a freelance writer and college writing instructor who now teaches in Massachusetts.

The Irascible Professor comments: The IP agrees with Beverley, and would even go a step further.  There is an old adage in politics that says "follow the money."  And, when we take a close look at the National Association of Scholars we find that it has a fairly powerful voice, a much louder voice than we would expect for an organization that claims only about 4,000 members on college and university campuses across the country.  For example, the American Physical Society to which most American physics professors belong boasts a membership of 48,000.  While the APS includes non-academic as well as academic physicists, more than half its members work in colleges and universities.  The reason then for the loud voice of the National Association of Scholars comes not so much from its numbers, but rather because it is especially well-funded.  Those funds come not from the membership by and large, but from a small number of very well-heeled, very conservative foundations.  They include or have included the Sarah Scaife Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, the Bradley Foundation, the Castle Rock Foundation, and the Smith Richardson Foundation.  Though the NAS claims that its mission is "to foster intellectual freedom and to sustain the tradition of reasoned scholarship and civil debate in America’s colleges and universities."  However, in practice its operations seem to the IP to be aimed mostly at promoting right-wing ideology rather than reasoned scholarship.  Their opposition to affirmative action on college campuses has bordered on the extreme, in the Irascible Professor's opinion; and, their opposition to programs that would increase the number of minority students on college campuses at times has seemed to the Irascible Professor to verge on outright bigotry.  Given the lens through which the NAS views the world, it is not surprising that they would be upset with books like Nickel and Dimed, which presented a rather unflattering view of working conditions for those Americans near the bottom of the economic ladder, or that they might be upset about books that challenge right-wing views of environmental issues.  And, they certainly are within their rights to voice their displeasure.  But, in reality, most of the books on those summer reading lists are neither very liberal nor very conservative.  As Beverly says, they just are books.


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2010 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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