Monday, April 17, 2006

The not-so-grand unification theory

I just skimmed an article at Inside Higher Ed that begins this way:

Like a growing number of colleges, Ohio State University at Mansfield has decided to ask all freshmen to read a common book, in the hope of creating a more unified intellectual experience for new students.
I was unaware of such a trend, but what a terrible idea. Expecting a single book to "unify" the intellectual experience of an entire class--young men and women who are coming from different backgrounds and who are heading in different directions--strikes me as hilariously naive. For starters, how and by whom should such a book be chosen? And how will the educators ensure that every freshman will not only read it, but derrive some intellectual benefit from the exercise?

Things have been getting ugly in Mansfield, Ohio because one of the books proposed as the "unifier" has been called anti-gay. I have no opinion on that, being unfamiliar with the book, but Scott Savage, the college's head reference librarian, suggests that many of the books under consideration are “ideologically or politically or religiously polarizing.”

Many of them are polarizing? I'd have guessed that every single one of the proposed books would be bound to ruffle somebody's feathers. One book might tick off Christians, another might offend Democrats, and still another might insult those who opt for plastic bags instead of paper at the grocery store. If it's even possible to find a book that doesn't rub somebody the wrong way, is it likely that such a book would be worth anyone's time, let alone everyone's time?

The problem with any let's-all-read-the-same-book program is that it can't guarantee a shared experience on any level other than the superficial. This was a dumb idea from the get-go.


Amy A. said...

I kind of like the idea. Not as a shared experience,because there is no way everyone will have a "unifying" moment, but as a "now we have something to talk about" idea. Don't know what to say? You can talk about the book, love it or hate it. You are right, though. This idea will most likely backfire. Probably cause more divided fronts than united ones. I know that I like to be able to discuss a book, even if it did offend me.

The poor guy who though this up is probably dying from the back lash they're getting. Too bad. Just goes to show how powerful a book and it's author can be.

Of course, you could write in and have the unifying book be A Family Forever! As we've seen by comments, even die hard romance haters have something nice to say about yours!

Can't wait for book #3!

Jade said...

I'm with Amy. Let the unifying book be A Family Forever!

Your Sister in Christ,


Bonnie Calhoun said...

Wow, that was really a hair-brained scheme! They should have brought in a book that was 'safe' like Oliver Twist or Alice in Wonderland! LOL!

Chris said...

My experience with classes like these is they tend to unite the students against the prof regardless of the subject matter.

At my college at UC Santa Cruz there was a mandatory multiculti lit class. Even though UCSC is a multiculti kinda school, everyone hated the class.

So yeah, they unified the students, but not in the way they probably intended.

Ruth said...

In my experience this whole idea never works like the educational higher ups expect it to.

Brenda Coulter said...

Amy and Jade, thanks for the kind words about my book.

Chris, one of my sons was required to do some multicultural, "bias-busting" studies in middle school. I was offended by the teacher's heavy-handed approach. She was convinced that every student in her class cherished racial biases and needed to be corrected. Her view struck me as just a tad, uh, biased.

Kim Laird said...

Really, this isn't anything new. I've heard of it for at least the last 8 or so years & I believe at least one university has done it for even longer. The main principle is not to "unify" people, but to provide the incoming freshmen with a common book to talk about, in order to start experiencing cultural diversity, to learn to discuss (rather than yell or argue), all those good things.

One of the "problems" with our culture is that there are enough books out there that it is much harder to share a common reading experience. One writer who talked about the "read the same book" experience for college students mentioned that it used to be that incoming college students would have all read Dickens, Shakespeare, Milton, etc. and nowadays, that's no longer true.

So... for whatever that's worth. The phenomenon is worth checking out, before dismissing it as a bad idea.

Brenda Coulter said...

Kim, few "innovations" in the education field are new.

I'm just not convinced that it's necessary or even desirable for incoming students to have more reference points in common. Gone are the days when all educated people read Homer. Gone are the days when all television watchers knew every episode of a single show like Leave it to Beaver or even Seinfeld. No longer do we all eat the same foods, listen to the same music, or participate in the same leisure activities; and except for Harry Potter and The DaVinci Code, we don't read the same books. (Yes, that was a pathetic attempt at humor. But I have a headache, so that's the best I'm going to be able to do this afternoon.)

American society has stretched in all directions, and if we no longer have a common experience, why is it necessary for our college freshmen to have one? In fact, after all these years of hearing educators urge us to embrace diversity and celebrate multiculturalism, I'm a little amused that they're now suggesting students should have more experiences in common.

Julie said...

Our local gifted high school actually tried something like this for the first time last year. Everyone got mad, because one of the books selected (I think they had two, both required) was too boring. One of the teachers declared that his students could be excused from the reading if they ate a raw clam in front of the class. Or maybe it was an oyster. Either way, I heard there were a lot of takers.

This idea makes more sense when applied to a particular course, rather than a whole school. Class discussions are more beneficial for everyone when students come prepared. So I wouldn't see a problem with, for example, telling English Lit students to read Hamlet before the semester starts.

It's important to realize that not only have those students come to college from different backgrounds, they have completely different goals for what they want to accomplish while they're there. Why force them all into one mold?

Anonymous said...

Why are all of you assuming that the purpose is to force people into one mold? That's certainly not my reading of the situation.

There's the typical dance of, "Hi, how're you, where're you from, etc." that everyone goes through when meeting someone new. Isn't it more interesting to talk about a shared experience, whether that be a book or thought-provoking movie?