September 27, 2012

Harvard Tells the Freshmen What to Read

Harry Lewis, a professor and former dean of Harvard College, wrote yesterday that the texts Harvard freshmen are reading this year "are more politically correct and less challenging than they used to be." Yes, it would seem so. Here are this year's readings:

A More Perfect Union, Barack Obama

Whistling Vivaldi , Claude M. Steele

Choosing the Color of My Collar, David Tebaldi '10

Every Asian American I Know Is Smart, Frank H. Wu

Who Is the Surgeon? , Chris Barrett, GSAS '12

Psalm, Wislawa Szymborska

Demographic Snapshot of the Harvard Class of 2016 

The first thing to note is that the inclusion of President Obama's famous speech carries a political  and partisan weight this year that it would not have had last year or next. Lewis writes: "Was there really no alternative to including the Obama text as required reading for all freshmen, two months before the first election in which many of them will vote?"

Worse, this year's texts give new Harvard students clear clues on what grievances they ought to feel and which class and racial resentments are deemed proper on this famous campus. And the emphasis on stereotypes is heavy: Claude Steele's depiction of stereotype threat as a reason for lack of success by many qualified women and minorities; Frank Wu's complaint that Asian-Americans are conventionally stereotyped as smart and successful; David Tebaldi's discomfort as a black student of humble means at Harvard confronted by bewildering expectations and, yes, stereotypes; and Chris Barrett's rambling complaint that people always think of surgeons as male and heterosexual.

These readings are thin gruel indeed, saying the same thing over and over and shaping discussions scheduled to be based on these readings the same way. Claude Steele's controversial theory of stereotype threat, to give one example, might have been balanced by inclusion of a piece by his brother, Shelby Steele, an equally prominent scholar who disagrees.

The last text on the list is a poem by the late Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, which begins (in translation): "Oh, the leaky boundaries of man-made states!," and ends "Only what is human can truly be foreign. The rest is mixed vegetation, subversive moles and wind."

A final note: though the readings were presented in the name of "diversity," no white male made the list. 

Comments (21)

Evan Schackmann:

What is most troubling is that "one of our best universities" feels the need to force it's students to read. If one is going to Harvard, shouldn't one be the kind of student that already reads voraciously? These lists say much more about the students than they do about the school. The fact that the books are all decidedly leftist and promote one presidential candidate over another is no surprise.


On the brighter side - imagine how much pleasure the freshmen will get when they do eventually come across a white male 'master'. By promoting the second rate Harvard is only highlighting the excellent.


I've come to the conclusion that the most difficult thing about Harvard is admission. Once they let you into the club of "right sort of people", then you're set. Intellectual development or ethics? Forget it. Are those rumors that the Medical School only has pass/fail tests, and then students can take them multiple times? Or that once Harvard Faculty were to report when they weren't giving a Final Exam. So few did that now they must report when they do. No Finals? Just presentations and reports? Pretty expensive exclusive club is what it sounds like.

Ed :

The question I ask is what happens to those students not astute enough to parrot back the required "correct" responses to what they think of these items.

Where will the line between merely holding an unapproved/unpopular opinion and mental illness be drawn? Will Harvard do what other universities already are doing -- declaring their political dissident students to be "insane" and carting them off to the psych ward?

J. Conrad:

I don't see the problem with Wislawa Szymborska on the reading list. Her work is strong and insightful, even funny.

Szymborska was Polish, "Psalm" was written about fifteen years before the fall of the Soviet Union. The most obvious border she had issues with is the Iron Curtain enclosing her nation.

The poem is available on the internet, free as a bird:

Need I mention every single bird that flies in the face of frontiers
or alights on the roadblock at the border?
A humble robin - still, its tail resides abroad
while its beak stays home. If that weren't enough, it won't stop bobbing!


My daughter attends Mississippi State University. Her freshman reading this year was a book called Unbowed: A Memoir, which is the autobiography of Wangari Maathai. It has a leftist slant, but at least the woman did something that actually improved people's lives. Unbelievable that MSU has a better freshman reading requirement than Harvard...


Here's an alternative reading list for those Harvard frosh--if they can handle it:


A Guide to Effective Study/Dr. Edwin A. Locke

The Histories/Herodotus
The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire/Edward Gibbons
A World Lit Only By Fire/William Manchester
The Discoverers/Daniel J. Boorstin
A History of the United States and Its People/Edward Eggleston
Washington’s Crossing/David Hackett Fisher
In Pursuit of Reason: The Life of Thomas Jefferson/Noble E. Cunningham, Jr.
Life & Times of Frederick Douglass/Frederick Douglass
The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich/William Shire
American Caesar/William Manchester
Ethnic America: A History/Thomas Sowell
Out of America/Keith B. Richburg

A Familiar Exposition of
The Constitution of the United States/Joseph Story
Political Writings of John Locke/Editor: David Wooten
Selected Essays on Political Economy/Frederic Bastiat
Planned Chaos/Ludwig Von Mises
Economics In One Lesson/Henry Hazlitt
The Authentic Confucius: A Life of Thought and Politics/Ann-ping Chin

The Discovery of the Child/Maria Montessori
How to Raise a Brighter Child/Joan Beck
Marva Collins’ Way/Marva Collins
Twice As Less/Elizabeth Wilson Orr
Less Than Words Can Say/Richard Mitchell
Woe Is I/Patricia T. O’Conner

The Billion Dollar Molecule/Barry Werth
Longitude/Dava Sobel
An Endless Series of Hobgoblins/Eric Hagen & James Worman
Facts, Not Fear/Michael Sanera & Jane S. Shaw
The Blind Watchmaker/Dr. Richard Dawkins
A Modern Introduction to Ancient Indian Mathematics/ T. S. Bhanu Murthy

The Psychology of Self-Esteem

The Pocket Aristotle/Aristotle
The Pocket Aquinas/Thomas Aquinas
The Virtue of Selfishness & The Voice of
Reason/Ayn Ran
The Ominous Parallels/Dr. Leonard Peikoff

The Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: The Man Who Was Sherlock Holmes/John Dickson Carr
All Creatures Great and Small/James Herriot
Brunelleschi’s Dome/Ross King
Longitude/Dava Sobel
Flight/Chris Kraft


The Sketch Book/Washington Irving
The Scarlet Letter & Selected Tales and Sketches /Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Count of Monte Cristo/Alexander Dumas
Tales of Hoffman/E.T.A. Hoffman
Ninety-Three, Notre Dame de Paris, The Man Who Laughs & Toilers of the Sea/Victor Hugo
The Brothers Karamazov & The Possessed/Fyodor Dostoyevsky
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court & The Prince and the Pauper/Mark Twain
Around the World in Eighty Days/Jules Verne
Scaramouche/Rafael Sabatini
The Secret Garden/Frances Hodgson Burnett
The Nerve of Foley/Frank Spearman
The Scarlet Pimpernel/Baroness Orczy
The Four Feathers/A.E.W. Mason
Captains Courageous & The Days Work/Rudyard
Sherlock Holmes/Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Calumet K/Merwin-Webster
Collected Stories of O. Henry/O. Henry
Riders of the Purple Sage/Zane Grey
It Can’t Happen Here & Babbit/Sinclair Lewis
The Best Western Stories of/Ernest Haycox
A Separate Peace/John Knowles
Quo Vadis/Henryk Sienkiewicz
Anthem & The Fountainhead
& Atlas Shrugged/Ayn Rand
Shane/Jack Shaeffer
Big Red/Jim Kjelgaard
National Velvet/Enid Bagnold
The Heart of Princess Osra/Anthony Hope
Strong Poison/Dorothy Sayers
A Town Like Alice, Trustee from the Toolroom & The Far Country/Nevil Shute
I, the Jury/Mickey Spillane
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd/Agatha Christie
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest/Ken Kesey
Barometer Rising/Hugh MacLennan
Advise and Consent/Allen Drury
Exodus/Leon Uris
This Perfect Day/Ira Levin

Othello/William Shakespeare
Monna Vanna/Maurice Maeterlinck
Cyrano/Edmond Rostand
The Importance of Being Earnest &
A Woman of No Importance/Oscar Wilde
The Miracle Worker/William Gibson
Inherit The Wind/Jerome Lawrence &
Robert E. Lee
Night of January 16th/Ayn Rand
Who’s Life Is It, Anyway?/Brian Clark


The gods of identity politics are jealous gods indeed.


Writeby, that's a fantastic list! Where'd you get it from mate?

I recommend the Gateway to the Great Books, and of course thenGreat Booms of the Western World, personally.

Dyspeptic Curmudgeon:

Writeby: That sort of list is only going to get a 'TLDR' response.

MUCH more to the point, a short list:
Ari Mendelson's Bias Incident: The World's Most Politically Incorrect Novel

which is available at Amazon on Kindle for the wallet-breaking sum of $.99!


And F. A. Hayek's The Road to Serfdom
which is available in paperback, used for $4.95


And the frosh should read them is that order.

Is there any possibility of get a viral campaign going to push for these choices to be brought to the attention of the incoming class?


My son Ian"t at Harvard, but in our conversation the other night he made references to Paradise Lost (Milton), Shakespeare, the Bible and the Koran.
Since he's read all of these texts ( and a lot more) he just uses them as examples in conversations. I'm thinking that maybe homeschooling and community college were a better foundation than Harvard- certainly his self selected reading material is more challenging and thought provoking.


Whether the authors and topics are good or bad is subjective. But I did find this interesting:

"These readings are thin gruel indeed, saying the same thing over and over and shaping discussions scheduled to be based on these readings the same way. Claude Steele's controversial theory of stereotype threat, to give one example, might have been balanced by inclusion of a piece by his brother, Shelby Steele, an equally prominent scholar who disagrees."

So Harvard purposely avoided a made-to-order exercise in critical thinking for the freshmen? What better way to spur comparison and contrast than to highlight the different thoughts of two equally prominent brothers on a topic. It's almost as if they didn't want the students supplementing thought or judging the soundness and general worth of statements. Hmm?

Chris Sandvick:

Got to put in a 2nd plug for the list of books recommended by Writeby. Not just Harvard freshmen will benefit from reading them.

Susan Lee:

Dante's Divine Comedy, Shakespeare (who cribbed plots from Dante), Helen MacInnes (for 1960's spy stories which reverberate still today). More English poetry including Chaucer and Beowulf (audio versions are cool!) Anything by John Julius Norwich (A Short History of Byzantium, The Middle Sea)Charles C. Mann's 1491 and 1493
Susan Lee


David Tebaldi is white. That's way too ethnic a last name to be black, and a simple google search will get you a picture.


It's not just the weak and slanted content of the reading list which seeks to indoctrinate students but the very low level of the writing. Is this all that an incoming freshman can handle? That speaks volumes for the pitiful products of American education.

Jonathan Cohen:

This list sounds like the work of administrators. Political correctness enforcement which goes by the more benign names of diversity or multiculturalism, is a major growth industry in college administration. One of the features of the politicizing of college life is the intrusion of academically unqualified administrators into the academic life of colleges and universities.

It is hard to believe that Harvard has sunk this low.


For very good reason I doubt you'll see Ayn Rand on a freshman reading list ever. William Manchester, hmm. Ken Kesey from the sixties but not James Welch or Fred Exley? A Separate Peace but not Catcher? I, the Jury is a good pick but is, except for shock value, inferior to Friends of Eddie Coyle. For that matter if we're exposing young minds to Spillane why not go whole hog with The Deep.

Baby M:

My oldest son is an engineering major in "Honors College" at the local state university--which entitles him to an additional scholarship which about a third of his tuition. He has to attend a once-a-month Saturday discussion/leadership training/indoctrination session as a condition of that scholarship.

As he described it, 85% of the first Saturday session was politically-correct b.s. There was a subset of the students in attendance, the sort of well-intentioned young people who major in political science, pre-law, or "_______ Studies" and have ambitions of saving the world through bureaucracy, who took it all very seriously. The rest of them (which includes all the engineers) knew it was b.s. and an indoctrination session, kept their opinions to themselves so that it would be over sooner, and made snarky comments to each other about it afterward.

Based on what my son tells me, while there's a lot of attempted indoctrination going on in colleges, most students are capable of seeing it for what it is and discounting it accordingly.

Mr Punch:

If telling freshman what to read is a bad thing, the University of Chicago ought to be carpet-bombing into oblivion.

The trouble with Harvard's reading list is that it's not about intellectual development at all - it's about social inclusion and stereotyping. This may, in fact, be necessary - I'm prepared to believe that Harvard freshmen tend to be bright and well-read, but still young jerks - but it's kind of discouraging.


As posted earlier David Tebaldi is white. His article can be found here:http://www.scribd.com/doc/40114299/5/CHoosIng-THe-ColoR-of-MY-CollaR

and truth be told, it's pretty interesting. It deals with what it's like to me a working class white male at an institution like Harvard.

The inclusion of a work by the current President in an election year however is inexcusable.

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