Take A Look At The Mental Junk Food Colleges Assign Students

Take A Look At The Mental Junk Food Colleges Assign Students

A survey of what colleges assign for incoming students to read shows they are largely more concerned with political activism than with a vibrant mind.
Peter W. Wood
By

“Tears welled in Wes’s eyes but never fell. He’d realized long ago that crying does no good.”

That’s Wes Moore, about to cook up a batch of crack cocaine. He really doesn’t want to sell crack, but he isn’t making enough money at his job chopping vegetables at the mall.

This is a detail from “The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates,” by Wes Moore—not the drug dealer serving life for murder, the other Wes Moore, who became a Rhodes Scholar, decorated veteran, and White House Fellow. The book is part memoir, part soul-searching reflection on the disparate paths we take in life. It is also the top choice of colleges and universities this year for “common reading.”

Hundreds of colleges now pick a single book each year for new students to read in the summer before their first semester. Even if some students skip them, these “beach books” tell us a lot. They announce what the college thinks is important and exhibit the college’s best judgment about how well its students can read. They also capture the eagerness with which colleges now try to shape students’ social and political views. Judging from the beach books colleges pick, welcoming students to the adventure of open-minded inquiry is last on the agenda.

For the last six years, the National Association of Scholars has been tracking beach books. My colleague Ashley Thorne began this out of simple curiosity. But the list she drew up drew a lot of attention, and each year after we went deeper into finding out who picked the books and why. This year 350 colleges picked 236 books. Many picked the same book. Sixteen colleges picked “The Other Wes Moore.” The next six top choices were: “Just Mercy”—14 colleges; “The Circle” —6 colleges; “March: Book One”—6 colleges; “Enrique’s Journey”—5 colleges; “Garbology”—5 colleges; and “Outcasts United”—5 colleges.

Recent, Easy, and Leftist Reading

We’ve learned a lot about “common reading programs” over these years. What leaps out from our studies is that the vast majority of colleges pick very recent, very easy, and very progressive books. Very recent: 130 of the books (55 percent of the total) were first published since 2010.

Most of the books are rated at a junior-high reading level. For the top seven in this year’s list, the official “Lexile” reading levels are:

  • “The Other Wes Moore” has a Lexile rating that puts the book in the range of sixth-graders.
  • “Just Mercy” has a Lexile rating that puts the book in the range of ninth-graders.
  • “The Circle” has a Lexile rating that puts the book in the range of fifth-graders.
  • “March: Book One” has a Lexile rating that puts the book in the range of fourth-graders.
  • “Enrique’s Journey” has a Lexile rating that puts the book in the range of fifth graders.
  • “Garbology” has a high Lexile rating. The publisher’s recommended reading level is “Age 18 and up.”
  • “Outcasts United” has a Lexile rating similar to that of “The Other Wes Moore,” at an approximately sixth-grade reading level.

The best way to show how progressive these books are is by example. “The Other Wes Moore” (2011) is not a political tract per se. It is, rather, part of the soft packaging of themes congenial to the Left. As in many other beach books, the author strains to create sympathy for the downtrodden.

How does the author Wes Moore know that tears welled in the eyes of his crack-dealing namesake before he cooks up the next batch? He doesn’t know. It just sounds better than portraying the fellow as a cold-hearted mercenary. Perhaps we can call this form of forced interpretation pathetic license, since the aim is to elicit sympathy for someone who has had bad breaks.

“The Other Wes Moore” had been a runner-up in years past—the third most-assigned book in 2013—but it shot to the top in 2014 and 2015 as the nation was schooled on the theme “Black Lives Matter.”

A Tale of Unjust Justice

Just Mercy,” (2014) by Bryan Stevenson, is subtitled “A Story of Justice and Redemption.” Stevenson is a lawyer who takes on the desperate cases of the “wrongly condemned,” and “Just Mercy” is his account of his successful effort to win the release of Walter McMillian, a black man in rural Alabama wrongly convicted of murder.

‘This book is about getting close to mass incarceration and extreme punishment in America.’

McMillian was eleven miles away at a fish fry at the time of the murder, in front of numerous witnesses. The state withheld key evidence from McMillian’s lawyers and relied on testimony from criminals who had, in fact, conspired to frame McMillian. McMillian also was known in his community for carrying on an affair with a much younger married white woman, which gave the case a tinge of old-fashioned white racist revenge. So Stevenson has the material for a barn-burning tale of racial injustice.

But he set his sights on a larger theme: “This book is about getting close to mass incarceration and extreme punishment in America. It is about how easily we condemn people in this country and the injustice we create when we allow fear, anger, and distance to shape the way we treat the most vulnerable among us.”

Stevenson is a man of strenuous forgiving: “We’ve institutionalized policies that reduce people to their worst acts and permanently label them ‘criminal,’ ‘murderer,’ ‘rapist,’ ‘thief,’ ‘drug dealer,’ ‘sex offender,’ ‘felon’—identities they cannot change regardless of their crimes or any improvements they might make in their lives.”

Like “The Other Wes Moore,” “Just Mercy” has its lachrymose moments. Stevenson meets a wheelchair-bound old man who is a veteran of civil rights protests: “He leaned back and looked at me intensely, ‘People think these are my scars, cuts, and bruises.’ For the first time I noticed his eyes were wet with tears. He placed his hands on my head. ‘These aren’t my scars, cuts, and bruises. These are my medals of honor.’”

“Just Mercy” ends with McMillian’s death from advanced dementia 20 years after his exoneration. Stevenson is asked at the funeral to explain “what Walter taught me,” which of course is, “We have to reform a system of criminal justice that continues to treat people better if they are rich and guilty than if they are poor and innocent.”

Enter the Evil Corporation

Dave Eggers’ “The Circle” (2014) is a novel about the travails of a young woman who goes to work at a Google-like company called “The Circle.” Eggers achieved fame with a memoir in 2000, “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” about his struggle to raise his younger brother after they lose both parents to cancer. In “The Circle,” Mae is a recent liberal arts grad whose dream slowly turns into a nightmare as she discovers the company’s malign ambitions to gain world power via control of social media.

“The Circle” plays to adolescent suspicions about the evils of the corporate world, and it is a dialogue-heavy, fast, easy read—

‘So how’s the bay feel today?’ he asked.

‘Good,’ Mae said. ‘It is so calm.’

‘Calmest it’s been this week,’ he agreed, and for a while no one spoke, as if the three of them were honoring the water’s tranquility with a moment of silence.

Numerous reviewers have commented on Eggers’ apparently deliberate decision to “write down” to an audience that he must have assumed has a very low reading level, but at 500 pages, “The Circle” is at least longer than the typical beach book.

March: Book One” (2013) is a comic-book account of the travails of John Lewis. It commences on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma as the civil rights protesters of March 7, 1965, prepare to confront the heavily armed, gas-masked state troopers.

“Book One” ends four years earlier with the Lewis-led demonstrations in Nashville against segregated lunch counters. Composed at a fourth-grade reading level, “March” offers an entirely uncritical, historically simplistic celebration of the civil rights movement and Lewis’s role in it.

Bash Both Businesses and the Rule of Law

Sonia Nazario’s “Enrique’s Journey” recounts the travails of a Honduran boy who heads north by foot and freight train to cross the Rio Grande. Nazario, a Los Angeles Times writer, first published her account of Enrique’s illegal entry to the United States in 2006, which is so long ago in beach book years that the publisher touts it as “now a beloved classic.”

The book presents a one-sided account of the problem of illegal immigration.

The book presents a one-sided account of the problem of illegal immigration. “Oppositions to immigration include racism, a resistance to change, and a discomfort with having people around who don’t speak the same language or have similar customs.” Nazario sees no need to mention wage-lowering competition for entry-level jobs, the erosion of the rule of law, and the rise of vicious gang violence.

She does allow that immigrants are a heavy draw on American entitlements and health care. They are “nearly three times as likely to receive government welfare payments,” and that, being poor, “they pay lower taxes.” But Nazario settles the blame for such problems mainly on businesses that want “cheap immigrant labor.”

“Enrique’s Journey” puts a human face on the catastrophe of unaccompanied minors flooding across our southern border. It is presented in simple prose and uncomplicated emotions: “Enrique allows himself to doze only on trains farther north, where the gangsters no longer control the tops of the trains. There, he jams his body into the crevice on top of a hopper, next to the trapdoor used to fill the car.”

The scenes range from latent danger to horrific:

The man with the cobra tattoo on his arm orders Wendy to remove her pants. She refuses. He throws her to the ground and places the tip of his machete against her stomach.

She begins to cry. He puts the edge of the blade to her throat. She takes off her pants, and he checks them for money. ‘If you scream,’ he says, ‘we cut you to bits.’ Then he rapes her.

This is more pathetic license: writing that aims to shock the reader and engage our sympathies rather than invite us to reflect on how and why such brutality occurs.

No List Complete Without Environmentalism

Edward Humes’ “Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash” (2012) is a journalist’s account of how America generates a lot of trash and doesn’t dispose of it particularly well. Humes won a Pulitzer prize in 1989 for a newspaper series about the U.S. military, then embarked on a career of writing nonfiction books, including “Mean Justice” (2003), a book much like “Just Mercy,” recounting how unscrupulous prosecutors brought innocent citizens to grief; and “Monkey Girl” (2007), detailing the fight in a Pennsylvania town after the local school board required that “intelligent design” be presented as an option in biology classes.

Humes’ career consists of journalistic advocacy for liberal causes, and in ‘Garbology’ he turns to the fashionable sustainability movement.

Humes’ career consists of journalistic advocacy for liberal causes, and in “Garbology” he turns to the fashionable sustainability movement. The book opens with a vignette about an elderly Chicago couple who have been such extreme hoarders that emergency workers have to rescue them from their own apartment. This is essentially Humes’ image of America: suffocating in its own waste: “Like any addict, America is living in an official state of garbage denial.”

This book tells us a great deal about the Puente Hills Landfill in Los Angeles and other dumps around the country. Even “green cities” such as Portland, Oregon, turn out to have feet of garbage. “They make a lot of it in Portland—a shade more trash even than the average American’s 7.1 pounds a day, and half pound more than the average Oregonian.” Portland is trying hard, but Humes presents Copenhagen as the city that has really set the world standard for eliminating garbage.

Warren St. John’s “Outcasts United” (2009) is an account of a youth soccer club in Clarkson, Georgia coached by a Jordanian woman and composed of refugee boys from sundry Third World countries. This tale of multicultural amity exists in multiple versions, including the original 320-page edition. St. John, a New York Times journalist, “adapted” it to a 226-page version pitched to “young people”:

Perhaps no one in Clarkson was as excited to hear about the free soccer program as eight-year-old Jeremiah Ziaty. Jeremiah loved soccer. Since arriving in the United States with his mother, Beatrice, and older brothers, Mandela and Darlington, Jeremiah has been cooped up in his family’s Clarkson apartment on strict orders from his mother.

The larger lesson of the book is that we can all do something for social justice. Luma, the coach, “Is really a normal person doing what she can for the people around her.” She is “human, not a saint or a superhero,” but determined “to do something positive in my community.”

One character concludes, “No one person can do everything. But we can all do something.” The young people’s edition is the only one I’ve been able to find, but it is possible that the colleges that assigned “Outcasts United” as a beach book managed to send out the longer version.

Sing a Song of Victimization

When I say the college beach books are “very progressive,” what I have in mind is that the top seven most assigned books all focus on themes favored by the campus Left and all present stories meant to make leftist perspectives more appealing:

  • “The Other Wes Moore”Crimes committed by black youth reflect complex circumstances.
  • “Just Mercy”—American justice is racist and corrupt.
  • “The Circle”—American business is immoral and aims to subjugate the world.
  • “March: Book One”—The struggle against racism is America’s defining moral issue.
  • “Enrique’s Journey”—Illegal immigrants have shown great courage to come here.
  • “Garbology”—A dire environmental crisis caused by consumerism must be met with activism.
  • “Outcasts United”—The hard lives of poor immigrant children can be redeemed by multiculturalism.

I don’t mean to suggest these themes are the totality of college common readings. A few colleges assign classics; a few assign older books that are not quite classics, such as Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451”; a few assign hard books; and a few pick books intended to be introductions to the life of the mind. All together, these exceptions add up to 20 colleges of the 350 we tracked. Columbia University assigned “The Iliad”; Colorado College assigned “Hamlet.”

We spent time sorting through the selections looking for patterns, and found some that were not immediately obvious. Memoirs, for example, are the most popular genre. Colleges like books that have spawned movies.

Read our “Beach Books” report if you want the deeper picture, but you won’t be far wrong to conclude that when colleges pick books for freshmen these days, their political commitments easily triumph over their interest in fostering intellectual aspirations. The fussy do-gooderism of the nanny-versity is the suntan oil of beach book programs.

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