BY JOHN K. WILSON
The National Association of Scholars (NAS) has issued its annual “Beach Books” attack on colleges for their common reading programs. According to the NAS, “Common readings frequently emphasize progressive political themes—illegal immigrants contribute positively to America, the natural environment must be saved immediately…” In reality, the NAS found that few of the readings involved those horrible books supporting the natural environment while failing to provide the “destroy the environment” side of the story. But yes, it is true that centrist liberal approaches dominate the reading lists, unfortunately. However, the core reason for that is the stupidity of conservative books nowadays. Why does the NAS hate contemporary books? Perhaps it’s because conservative books are so dumb. The NAS couldn’t seriously recommend books by Ann Coulter or Milo or Bill O’Reilly, which dominate conservative best-seller lists today. So they turn to the safety of the past, to find the familiar old books that can be safely discussed without the “activism” of talking about the real world.
The NAS claims that “Common readings are usually banal and intellectually unchallenging.” The top five assigned books are Just Mercy, Between the World and Me, The Other Wes Moore, I Am Malala, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
These may not be the greatest books ever written, but to call them “banal and intellectually unchallenging” is untrue and unfair. By the standard of “Beach Books,” these are thoughtful and challenging books.
The only thing close to a contemporary book with a living author on the NAS recommended list are Gary Rose’s Shaping a Nation: 25 Supreme Court Cases (a $50 book that offers edited versions of Supreme Court opinions), Robert Skidelsky’s biography of Keynes that the NAS describes as “massive,” and Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, a goofy right-wing book from the 1980s that claims all intellectual debates come from the “constrained” vision (which sees human nature as unchanging and selfish) versus the “unconstrained” vision (which sees human nature as malleable and perfectible). Sowell’s simplistic and stupid book is mainly worth reading as a guide for why people should not try to dichotomize the universe of ideas into two kinds of thinking. Suggestions like these are just awful for common reading. What student would voluntarily want to read any of these over summer break?
The NAS bizarrely predicts that “common reading programs with a literary bent are likely to assign works that can be used to forward anti-Trump polemics,” such as Julius Caesar. The NAS Report complains that while several colleges had assigned books by Barack Obama after he became president, “we predict that no college or university in the United States will assign Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal as a common reading.” In the partisan world of the NAS, a stupid, simplistic book ghostwritten for a Republican must be treated the same as a thoughtful, literate book actually written by a Democrat. For a report that claims to condemn “banal and intellectually unchallenging” books, this demand for equal Trump time is strange.
The NAS obsession with old books is a mystery to me. The older books recommended by the NAS are often widely read in high school and college (or are largely outdated and unlikely to engage students). The NAS treats common reading programs as if it were a test of ideological purity rather than a pragmatic effort to encourage reading.
It’s difficult enough to get college students to read books in classes where they are called upon to discuss them and are graded for their understanding. That’s why common reading programs are designed to appeal to students by addressing current issues and bringing authors to campus to speak to them directly about their work. Having real living authors on campus talking about current issues is a valuable thing, but the NAS condemns the idea outright.
The NAS demands a “Divorce from Activism. Common readings should not promote pledges, service-learning, civic engagement, activism of any kind, or classes, programs, events, or ‘yearly themes’ devoted to any of these activities. Common reading programs should cut all ties to sponsoring administrative sub-units within the university that promote activism, such as Offices of Diversity, Sustainability, or Civic Engagement.” This is an incredibly repressive suggestion. The NAS wants to ban campus programs from any involvement in common reading programs based solely on its crackpot view that these programs should be banned on campus. But a free university does not announce bans on “activism.”
The NAS Report loves the phrase “tendentious questions,” when in reality a question is just a question, and almost never tendentious. The NAS attacks North Carolina State for “tendentious questions, such as ‘Do you agree with Stevenson that punishments for children are “intense and reactionary”?’” That’s a perfectly good question to ask. The NAS attacks the Fashion Institute of Technology for asking “tendentious discussion questions” in its common reading, such as “After reading the book, what are your thoughts on child labor in developing countries?” According to the NAS, this completely open-ended question is actually repressive because it does not “encourage” answers that the NAS supports (in this case, their view that child labor is “a boon for humanity”).
The NAS claims that common reading programs cost an average of $25,000 a year (not including staff time) and that its proposals to cut speaker fees would reduce costs. In reality, common reading programs are often much more expensive (Northwestern just announced that all incoming students will be taken to see the musical Hamilton this fall as part of the Danielle Allen common reading, a six-figure expense). And the NAS proposals are very expensive: the NAS wants faculty put in charge of programs (which is a good idea), and then proposes to give all faculty on these committees a course release every semester, which would be an enormous expense.
I’d love to see common reading programs assign an anti-Trump book (such as mine or another author’s) along with a pro-Trump author such as Ann Coulter or David Horowitz. Unfortunately, the fear of controversy makes it unlikely that colleges will take such an approach.
The NAS Report fails to urge colleges to adopt common reading programs. It fails to suggest that colleges assign two books with different viewpoints for their common reading. It fails to recommend that programs associated with a book should strive to include dissenting views from people who criticize the chosen book. And it fails to tell politicians that should end their habit of trying to punish colleges who include controversial authors in these programs.
The NAS Report is awful: It makes recommendations that violate principles of academic freedom, it refuses to suggest any contemporary books that colleges overwhelmingly prefer for common reading programs, it smears these programs with false accusations in a tendentious report, and it provides few useful suggestions to improve the intellectual rigor and success of common reading programs.