Study Finds Liberal Bias in College Summer Reading Lists, Stirring Debate

A new study by the National Association of Scholars has found that 70 percent of the summer reading books assigned to incoming college freshmen in the U.S. show a liberal bias and are not academically challenging, setting off a storm of debate in educational circles.

The report, "Beach Books: What Do Colleges Want Students to Read Outside Class?", surveyed 290 colleges and categorized their summer reading lists in broad terms, such as "multiculturalism, immigration and racism" (the most common category chosen by colleges), or "environmentalism, animal rights and food" (the second largest liberal category selected by colleges). The study found that "the choices by and large reflect leftist political perspectives."

"Even where the books themselves may convey more complex social views, most of the books on the list fit neatly with the agenda of the campus left: anti-Western, anti-business, multicultural, environmentalist and alienated. The books do signal what lies ahead for students in many colleges: a four-year program of more of the same," the report concluded.

The study did not look at the alleged bias of the assigned books individually, according to NAS spokeswoman Ashley Thorne, who helped create the list. "We looked at what the books were about," she said, and then categorized the general subject as either liberal or conservative.

"Only 2 percent of the books were considered conservative," she said.

Click here to view the full list of colleges and recommended summer-reading books.

The study also found that the selection of books focused heavily on "pop culture and sports and not core curriculum," which is where Thorne argued higher education should be going.

“They were not intellectually challenging,” she said.

The report also argued that "the current reading programs take little interest in the classics." It found that there were no works by Shakespeare or from the Renaissance and that ancient works were completely ignored.Of the 290 assignments by colleges, only five schools came close to assigning classics, according to the report. Those "classics" were: Frankenstein, The Communist Manifesto, Walden and the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn -- which was assigned by two colleges.

But educators argue that classics are curriculum material best studied in the classroom, and that students are unlikely to read Rousseau over the summer. They argue that popular books not only build common ground, but help students learn to write better than the textbooks and classics they will be required to read in their courses

The NAS's use of broad-brush categories also came under widespread criticism from educators. John K. Wilson, an Illinois educator who writes the College Freedom blog, said that the most assigned book was "This I Believe," a collection of statements of what people believe by a wide array of contributors that could hardly be considered liberal or conservative.

"It doesn't appear that anyone at NAS has read the book," he said.

He also challenged the inclusion of "Persepolis," a graphic novel about the brutal dictatorship in Iran, as liberal, and the failure to list "Freakonomics," a libertarian book about economics, as conservative.

The report also came under fire from the Chronicle of Higher Education, the major magazine of the academic world, according to an editor who works there and asked not to be named.

"Is that a report, or is it a PR stunt?" Mike Caufield posted on the Chronicle's website. "Once you look at the methodology of the report and look at the organization releasing it, the story here is apparently 'Right Wing Organization thinks summer reading is too liberal, according to self-devised classification system.'"

Caufield charged NAS's funding by the Sarah Scaife Foundation, a Pittsburgh-based funder of conservative causes since the 1980s, and its public opposition to multiculturalism and affirmative action created a bias in the study that made it useless. As another poster wrote, "Does being 'conservative' really mean active support for pollution and animal suffering? Not only is this insulting to the concept of conservatism, it is nonsensical."

But Peter Wood, president of NAS, stood by his group's report, saying, "Something is wrong when Frankenstein is the best book on the list; the only work of philosophy is The Communist Manifesto; and books on Africa outnumber books on Europe nearly six to one."