Last month, you dropped your college freshman daughter off at school. Chances are, as you toted boxes up the dorm stairs, you noticed bulletin boards "celebrating" diversity and a poster announcing a big diversity bash during "Welcome Week."
Diversity -- of skin color, sexual orientation, etc. -- is all the buzz on American campuses today. But intellectual diversity, the kind that really matters? That's a different story.
Take the "common text" your daughter was assigned to read over the summer. The purpose of this shared reading -- a tradition for freshmen on many campuses -- is to encourage intellectual reflection and to start a campuswide dialogue, say college administrators. This academic year, 93 percent of the top 100 colleges ranked by U.S. News and World Report assigned a common reading, according to the National Association of Scholars (NAS) in Princeton, N.J.
In June, NAS released a study of 290 American colleges with such programs. This fall, the study was updated to include all 314 campuses with common readings -- 184 books in all. The conclusion? Far from being diverse in theme and perspective, these books tend toward lockstep conformity.
You won't see "Moby Dick" or "Hamlet" on the list, or even "The Great Gatsby" -- books that have stood the test of time, and that call students to think seriously about humanity's greatest challenges. Instead, most "common texts" seem intended to advance an ideological agenda -- to nudge young people into viewing the world through a very particular prism.
This fall, for example, many freshmen are arriving at college with "No Impact Man: The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet" tucked under their arm. Others are being instructed on the evils of capitalism -- the economic system that built our nation's world-class campuses -- in "The Moral Underground: How Ordinary Americans Subvert an Unfair Economy." Still others are wallowing in the West's racial sins with "Blonde Roots," a reimagining of history in which Africans enslave Europeans.
Last spring, the NAS's review of common texts found that 70 percent of these books promote a liberal political cause or interpretation of events. Less than 2 percent promote a conservative sensibility, while none advocate conservative political causes.
In general, the topics covered are those beloved of the Academic Left: multiculturalism, racism, immigration, environmental issues, animal rights, food production and green politics, along with the Islamic world, women and poverty. Nearly one-third of the books had an African, African-American, Latino or East Asian theme, while only 1.7 percent had a European theme.
How about the books' intellectual quality? In terms of complexity of prose and argument, the common readings seem better suited to Oprah's Book Club than to academic analysis, the report concludes. These books don't require students to "stretch to the demands of college-level study," but "shrink college-level study to the comfort zone of the average student." Most are short, easy reads -- the sort a traveler "could read start to finish on a flight from New York to Los Angeles."
Another feature of many common texts is their heavy emphasis on alienation, both personal and cultural. This might seem odd, given that American college students -- among history's most fortunate people -- are the beneficiaries of opportunities that are the envy of their peers around the world.
Nevertheless, common texts routinely portray America as a grim place and depict human beings as hapless victims of forces beyond their control. This year, for example, 14 colleges chose books about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. These tend to portray America as racist, while praising noble activists who seek to rectify our nation's many sins.
College is a time to introduce young people to humanity's greatest minds -- to the best that has been thought and said. It is a time for students to transcend the intellectual clichés of the moment and to explore the larger perspectives of philosophy and history. In the process, they should encounter a wide array of answers to questions of how we got where we are and how best to live.
Students won't get that opportunity from most of the books on the common text list. That list includes no works of classical antiquity, only a handful of first-class novels, and no historical or scientific classics, as the report points out. In response, the NAS has compiled a list of worthy alternatives, entitled "Read These Instead: Better Books for Next Year's Beaches."
The common texts now in use are "stuck in present tense" -- only five of 184 were written before the 20th century. Diversity? The trendy themes they present, from multiculturalism to environmentalism, are ideas our kids have been marinating in since kindergarten.
Katherine Kersten is a Twin Cities writer and speaker. Reach her at email@example.com.