Published October 21, 2014
What do you see when you look at a telephone pole? Nothing worth noticing? An annoying obstruction? A monument to American ingenuity? Maybe what you ought to see is a sign of America’s deep-lying racism, proof that even the most humdrum and seemingly benign marvel of engineering from America’s Age of Invention is tainted by our history of deadly racial hatred. You don’t see murderous racism when you look at telephone poles? You must not have been to college lately.
At a moment when we’re wracked by quarrels over the Common Core and changes to the AP U.S. History course, the most instructive education controversy of all may be the one outlined in the National Association of Scholars’ (NAS) just-released report: “Beach Books: 2013-2014.”
Don’t let the title fool you. Beach books are important. They’re the books many colleges now require their freshmen to read during the summer before they enter school. These “common readings” may be the most revealing and accessible signs we have of what today’s colleges are trying to teach their students. And the reading choices made by our colleges validate just about every warning offered by critics of the Common Core and of the revised AP U.S. History framework. By the time our children finish dragging themselves through our new, ultra-politicized K-12 system, they should be just about ready to see racist telephone poles everywhere.
We’ll get to telephone poles, the Common Core, and AP U.S. History shortly. First, let’s have a look at the key findings of the NAS Beach Books report.
Surprise! The books colleges want their freshmen to read are dumbed-down tracts of leftist political indoctrination. In the polite language of the NAS report, “the list of readings [is] dominated by recent, trendy, and intellectually unchallenging books” which “frequently emphasize progressive political themes.” Classics are intentionally avoided, as is fiction. More than half the books were published in 2000 or later, many in the same year they were assigned. There is now a virtual industry dedicated to pushing trendy, politicized common readings on colleges, author tours included.
Why dumb down the books? Simple: virginity. Many college freshmen are what the NAS report calls “book virgins.” When the report’s lead author, Ashley Thorne, pressed the administrators of college common reading programs to explain why their assignments were so unchallenging, she was told that many incoming freshman “had never read a whole book before.” The NAS report hastens to explain: “presumably they mean that some of their students have never read a book for pleasure, as opposed to reading one assigned for class.” I’m less sure than the NAS that freshman “book virgins” were at least deflowered while doing homework, if not during their leisure hours.
Says the NAS: “That students are being admitted to college without ever having read a book is a striking revelation about the state of admissions. It is evidence that students are unprepared for college—or that colleges are setting the bar too low.” Well, yes. But it’s equally striking that courtesy of the Common Core, high schools are responding to the spreading crisis of book virginity by aggravating it.
Common Core replaces many of the full-length classic novels state-level K-12 education standards once favored with brief selections instead. Common Core also tends to substitute short, non-fiction “informational texts” for literature. Critics of the Common Core worry that replacing classic novels with brief bits of non-fiction not only dumbs down the curriculum, but opens the way to its thoroughgoing politicization.
The NAS Beach Books report shows these fears to be entirely justified. A learning environment stripped of literary richness and reduced to preachy leftism already exists in campus common reading programs. Instead of fighting it, Common Core simply carries this unfortunate trend into our high schools. Common Core is supposed to turn out “college ready” students. Since preserving your book-virginity throughout high school is excellent preparation for the trendy memoirs and graphic novels many colleges now assign their inexperienced freshmen, I guess Common Core works. When it comes to reading books in their entirety, Common Core supporters would appear to endorse a form of abstinence education.
I explored the politicization of college common reading programs last year in, “Obama’s Secret Weapon: Henrietta Lacks.” Rebecca Skloot’s 2010 best-selling medical mystery story from the Jim Crow South, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, utters not a word about Obamacare, yet lends itself perfectly to propagandizing for the president’s signature policy initiative. Skloot’s book was the most popular college common reading assignment again in 2013-2014, for the third year running.
Another widely used assignment, David Eggers’ 2009 book Zeitoun, is an ideally-honed instrument for Bush-bashing. The book’s eponymous hero, Abdulrahman Zeitoun is an Arab-American who heroically canoed through post-Katrina New Orleans, offering help to people and animals alike. Falsely taken for a terrorist at the height of the Bush War on Terror, Zeitoun’s tale becomes, in the words of The New York Times, “a more powerful indictment of America’s dystopia in the Bush era than any number of well-written polemics.” Here is the key to college common reading assignments. They are roundabout enough to deflect charges of politicization, yet thoroughly political nonetheless.
Zeitoun’s popularity as a common reading assignment declined precipitously in 2012, perhaps because Zeitoun was divorced by his Muslim-convert wife after his Islamic views turned more “radical” and he was convicted of assaulting her, as well as jailed on charges of plotting her murder. The Beach Books report features this and several other fascinating cases of common reading assignments exposed as potential frauds or otherwise discredited post-publication. Thus are the hazards of abandoning the classics for trendy politics.
Which returns us to racist telephone poles. Having already discussed a couple of the most widely-assigned books, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and Zeitoun, I decided to look at a book from what is by far the most popular common-reading subject category: multiculturalism/immigration/racism. That led me to Eula Biss’s collection, Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays, a winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism. Assigned at a couple of the more selective colleges covered by the NAS Beach Books report (American University and Washington University in St. Louis) Biss’s book features arresting writing and relentlessly leftist politics. As with other common readings, while the politics are pervasive, they are conveyed in roundabout rather than overtly polemical fashion.
The standout essay at the head of the book, “Time and distance overcome,” is about telephone poles. (You can read it here.) What begins as an homage to Alexander Graham Bell’s energy and vision quickly devolves into a tale of the hazards of private property and the depths of America’s racism. We learn from Biss of the many instances in which black men were lynched from telephone poles. Unable to recover her innocent delight at the beauty and wonder of gracefully arced telephone wires glinting in the sun, Biss can only hope for a collective apology by Americans for our deeply racist history.
Should you object that the lynchings have ended while the technological wonder has endured, Biss spends the rest of the book uncovering the allegedly pervasive racism of our time and apologizing for it. What we take to be the central events of our day—economic fluctuations, war in the Middle East, the latest technological breakthrough, etc.—seem more like a fantasy-world to Biss, for whom the hidden racism she detects everywhere is the surest, hardest reality.
Biss wasn’t on the committee that crafted the radically revised AP U.S. History framework, but she might as well have been. Her determination to treat pride in America’s technological, economic, and democratic achievement as naïve, to turn racism into a master theme, and to cultivate an attitude of unending contrition, perfectly captures the sensibility behind the College Board’s history curriculumchanges.
Although Biss comes at her subjects indirectly, through personal reminiscence and reflection, her essays are filled with slams against conservative politicians and writers. What business do American University and Washington University, St. Louis have assigning to all their incoming students what is in effect a leftist political tract? These seemingly innocent “beach readings” are far more significant and potentially problematic than ordinary course readings because they are statements about the expectations of colleges and universities as a whole.
Liberal education demands neutrality on the part of institutions of higher learning as an essential precondition of the intellectual freedom of both students and teachers. When a university endorses a particular political perspective, it effectively censures members of its community who do not agree. This inhibits free inquiry and free expression alike.
With Biss’s book, the message seems to go further than merely, “conservatives keep out.” Receiving Biss as an assignment from the college itself says that you need to become a leftist, not just on policy, but down to the innermost depths of your soul—until racism is all that seems real to you, until you can’t even look at a telephone pole without wanting to apologize for America.
The dumbing-down and left-politicization of American education continues apace. The story is largely the same at every level, yet nowhere are the outcome and its dilemmas more clearly or disturbingly revealed than in a report on the innocent-looking innovation of college freshman “beach books.”
— Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.