For years the books North Carolina universities assigned over the summer to their incoming freshmen created a stir, particularly UNC Chapel Hill, whose post 9-11 choice was Approaching the Qur’an by Michael Sells. The assignment made national news and, as Duke Cheston recalls in this commentary on summer reading programs, Chapel Hill backed off and made the assignment optional. Like with many things, summer reading programs are waning in North Carolina. Cheston contacted a selection of colleges and universities and found a weakened interest in a group reading assignment. Writes Cheston:
This year, four of the colleges that the Pope Center contacted—UNC-Asheville, Lenoir-Rhyne University, Guilford College, and Mars Hill College—dropped summer reading programs. Several others have scaled back the program, either assigning a magazine article or offering mere suggestions for books to read.
I asked administrators at Mars Hill University and Guilford College why they dropped the program.
“One of the reasons we got rid of [the summer reading program] was that we realized we didn’t have clearly articulated goals,” said Jason Pierce, assistant vice president for academic affairs at Mars Hill. The school’s leaders had an idea of what the program was supposed to accomplish, and when they looked more closely, it didn’t seem to be fulfilling those goals. “We found that there was no evidence that we had achieved any of the [goals] we had agreed on to begin with,” Pierce said.
For example, one goal was increased community among students. Having all read the same book, they would have a shared experience, have something to talk about with peers, and feel more connected to the school. “We found that [the summer reading program] didn’t help to bridge any of those gaps,” Pierce said. “They weren’t having those conversations outside of class.” Many of the students—especially those who might have most benefited from it, Pierce said—didn’t even read the book.
I tip my hat to the scrubbing of ineffective programs. More broadly, however, I don’t quarrel with a group reading assignment, but I’ve never understood why the universities failed to assign the classics. Missed opportunity.