As summer gets underway, books centering on racial and social issues are again popping up on incoming-freshman reading lists at colleges across the country. Although it might be easy to correlate that trend with the presidential election — and the heightened racial and social tensions seen during and since — books focusing on those areas have been popular with many colleges for a few years now. In what may be a shift, however, working-class and rural white people are the focus of a book that has been assigned by several colleges, J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.
Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson, as well as The Other Wes Moore, by Wes Moore, saw popularity at colleges in 2015, as relations between African American civilians and police were thrust into the national spotlight after the deaths of Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner, in New York, among others. Those books are still being assigned this year. Incoming students at Northeastern University will be reading Just Mercy this summer, as will students at Goucher College, in Baltimore, and at Ohio State University. The Other Wes Moore was assigned at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, as well as Virginia Tech and University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Freshman book assignments vary by college. Many institutions assign one book, hoping for a common intellectual experience for new students. Others, such as the University of California, Berkeley, put together a large list for students to pick through. (This year’s selection ranges from the cast recording of the Broadway smash hit Hamilton to Disposable People, which investigates modern slavery.)
“We want to tackle issues of community and also engage students at the point of … making choices and defining who they are,” said Jonathan Wynn, one of two co-chairs of the book selection committee at UMass, about The Other Wes Moore, a nonfiction book which tells the story of two black boys growing up in Baltimore, both named Wes Moore, who experience very different outcomes in life. “Being in the political and cultural climate that we’re in, it’s important to note there are significant barriers to the success of the individual.”
The trend isn’t necessarily limited by geography, or whether a college is private or public. Students at the University of South Alabama will read The Complete Maus, a graphic novel on the Holocaust, while students at the College of Wooster, a small liberal arts college in Ohio, will read Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Writings on the Wall. At California State University at Northridge, this year’s book is Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, who writes about the intersection of race and culture for The Atlantic.
Not in a Vacuum, but Not Politically Motivated
While Wynn said that The Other Wes Moore can be fitting for modern political and social issues, the book — which made its way through a campuswide recommendation period and then through the committee’s multiple selection rounds — “isn’t explicitly political,” nor was it chosen for political purposes.
“The common read [program] is engaged with those wider conversations. Do we sit in a room and we say, ‘How can we address this issue?’ No,” he said.
“In this era, it just feels like everything is politically charged. I don’t know how we could not” be politically relevant, he added.
At the University of Nebraska at Omaha, officials also said that, while the committee choosing the books doesn’t live in a vacuum, The Other Wes Moore was chosen on merits outside its possible application to today’s political climate.
“Really, no,” Lucy Morrison, director of the university honors program, said in an email. “We are not oblivious, as a committee, to those elements of the text, but the emphasis Moore places upon education and mentoring are really what the committee found important.”
Cheryl Spector, director of academic first-year experiences at Cal State Northridge, where Between the World and Me was assigned, said that outside factors could have played a part in the book’s selection, but no more so than they would in any year. Ultimately, she said, the selection committee sticks to its criteria, which include questions such as “Does this book engage freshmen and draw them into reading and reflection?” and “Does this book address significant issues?”
“It’s certainly true we have a diversity of political positions on the selection committee,” Spector said. “I think the sort of drumbeat of news stories of young black men being shot gave this book a heightened urgency for anyone who was reading it on the selection committee. We are in California, in Los Angeles — I’m personally glad to have a book that seems unafraid to ask questions.”
Morrison and Spector both said that their institutions’ books were chosen for their ability to get incoming freshman reflecting and thinking critically, regardless of those students’ political views.
“We want [students] to look back on how they have arrived at UNO and what choices they have made have brought them to this point,” Morrison said. “Then we want to help them consider what will be required to take that next step, including making good choices and seizing new possibilities.”
This focus on social and racial issues, however, has drawn criticism from those who advocate for more a traditional curriculum, such as the National Association of Scholars. The group bemoaned the lack of classics, and in a 2014-16 trend report on summer readings called the majority of books assigned “recent, trendy and intellectually unchallenging,” containing “progressive political themes — illegal immigrants contribute positively to America, the natural environment must be saved immediately.”
That critical attitude is “not dissimilar to [attitudes held by] some of my colleagues,” Spector said, although she defended the assigning of modern books over classics.
“I empathize with the hesitation [of colleges] to enter into it and make a political stand,” Wynn said of freshman reading assignments, although he also said that the committee has chosen more explicitly political books in the past. “It gives me pause that the common read is deemed a political tool.”
“The common read is such as powerful tool to get the conversation going,” he said.
Many of those involved with summer reading programs also say the NAS critique seems to view these books as part of a formal curriculum, whereas summer reading advocates say they elevate the intellectual content of orientation, rather than replacing the curriculum on a given campus.
At Wooster, where Abdul-Jabbar’s Writings on the Wall was assigned, the college was aiming to be relevant for incoming freshmen, but not to push a political agenda, said Hank Kreuzman, an associate professor philosophy and dean for curriculum and academic engagement. As far as the book’s recency, part of Wooster’s selection criteria — as at other institutions — is whether the author of the book will be available to speak at the campus and engage with the students.
Abdul-Jabbar “is all in on the American dream and the U.S. Constitution,” Kreuzman said. “At the same time, he’s willing to say we haven’t achieved it yet, and we need to make ourselves better. It’s not a critique of the U.S., but saying, ‘This is what I really believe in, and we can continue to improve.’”
“In today’s political climate, it’s either you’re for us or against us. It’s a lot of polarizing talk.”
At least one popular assignment this year, however, while recent and trendy, focuses on a population that proved crucial for conservatives in the 2016 election. Viewed by many as a window into the lives of rural voters and working-class whites, J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy became a New York Times best-seller, driven in part by those reading it in an attempt to understand President Trump’s base. At least seven institutions — including Augustana College, Bowling Green State University, Flagler College, Middle Tennessee State University and the University of Wisconsin at Madison — have assigned the book or put it on a larger suggested reading list for incoming freshmen. Students reading it will attend institutions in locations as disparate as Miami University, in Oxford, Ohio — a half hour away from where Vance grew up — and UC Berkeley (where it is optional), located in a state that hasn’t voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1988.
“There’s some recognition that it is not an easy book, and it is not a book where everybody is going to read it and say, ‘I completely agree with what’s going on there,’” said Rich Taylor, director of Miami’s office of liberal education.
Despite the book’s popularity among opinion columnists and political pundits, however, Taylor said that the committee in charge of assigning summer reading, which he chairs, didn’t pick the book to highlight any specific political issues or because of the election.
“I don’t like to think of us trying to follow the trends too much,” Taylor said. “What we really like to have is a book that touches on important things but doesn’t tell people what to think.”
Speaking at Miami last year, Vance said he tried to avoid traditional politics in the book, focusing instead on economic troubles.
“I wanted to answer, or explain, this lack of upward mobility,” he said during a visit to the campus just after the election, according to The Miami Student. “If I put personal faces on these ideas, they might be easier to digest, to understand.”
Taylor said that, depending on the discussion facilitator students get after following the university’s convocation ceremony, the topics they talk about after reading the book could vary widely. The convocation speaker is set to be Stephen T. Williams, the mayor of Huntington, W.Va., and Taylor is hoping that discussions are based on the problems highlighted in the book, as well as potential solutions.
“There have been some local responses to this book, of people saying, ‘Well, my community isn’t like that.’ The danger of this book — we don’t want this to be an anthropology text, like, ‘Look at these other people who aren’t like us,’” he said. “There’s some common ground that can be reached here, and I’m hoping that will come through.”