Common Reading is an intellectual undertaking, not political

The choice of books selected for university common readings was criticized in national publications, but the university’s selection goes beyond the “common” in the reading, as it tries to choose a diverse set of works each year, a university common reading committee member said.

According to the Inside Higher Ed website, the book selections colleges make were too similar, left-leaning and not sufficiently challenging.

At the university, a common reading text is selected each year by a committee of 12 to 15 TCU faculty and staff members. English professor Dan Williams, a common reading committee member, said the common reading is an attempt to establish an intellectual community among entering students who participate in a shared discussion of a text or a series of texts that students read by the first week of school.

Robin Williamson, associate director for Student Development Services and common reading committee member, said “Three Cups of Tea” by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin was the common reading book for this year. She said Mortenson’s upcoming visit to campus in January had a lot to do with this year’s book selection.

According to the Inside Higher Ed website, “Three Cups of Tea” was among the top four books assigned to college freshman this year.

According to the National Association of Scholars website article “Read These Instead: Better Books for Next Year’s Beaches,” universities should aim higher in choosing an intellectually stimulating book for common reading assignments. The article “found a widespread emphasis on books that promote liberal political views; a preponderance of contemporary authors; and a surprisingly low intellectual difficulty.”

Political science professor Eric Cox, also a committee member, said he was not familiar with either article but said he sought diversity in style, perspectives and different works in text selections.

He said past readings included articles from multiple perspectives, different scholarly traditions and theatrical works. The goal was to be as balanced as possible in the selection of readings, he said.

Cox said the university tried to make selections that were intellectually stimulating, not political.

“We’re not trying to push a view point on students, we’re just trying to make students think,” he said.

The NAS article said it was constructive for students to encounter contemporary authors through common readings, but a vast majority of worthy books were left out by restricting the readings to works of living authors.

“We like the idea of common reading programs,” the NAS article said. “We simply want colleges to choose better books.”

A national study on the Inside Higher Ed website also questioned why few universities teach classic works and texts written before the 20th century.

At Baylor University, Keane Tarbell, associate director for New Student Programs, said he had not heard about the criticism, but he said he thought some colleges were more politically and economically motivated than others.

Baylor discontinued its common reading this year because of a budget decision, Tarbell said. Selections for previous years emphasized community, faith, diversity, calling, growing up and friendship because the themes fit Baylor and the character of the institution, he said.

Tarbell said he thought faculty, staff and students were involved in selecting a common reading for at least the past three times a reading was assigned.

Williamson said common readings were a popular trend across the country, but the university’s goal is to provide an opportunity for new students to interact with each other and faculty members in an academic classroom setting at the college level.

“There are many different reasons for why there’s a common reading program,” she said. “One reason is that it is a shared experience that first year students can have as a class, so it helps builds a sense of community.”

Williamson said approximately 90 percent of the students participated in this year’s common reading and gave a lot of positive feedback about the personal story in the book.

Williams said students engaged in an in-depth discussion about the book to learn what the university is all about.

Williams said the committee has already met to start discussing book possibilities for next year’s common reading. The themes are wide-ranging, he said. In previous years the common reading concentration was on the Bill of Rights.