Every year the College sends the entire incoming class a book to read over the summer. Then, as part of Orientation Week, they meet one evening with a professor, in small groups, to discuss it. Last year half the incoming class read McCain’s book and half read Obama’s. I got roped into running one of the discussion groups and had to read both books — this to my immediate dismay and later my great pleasure.
It is a good tradition. To have the whole incoming class read at least one thing in common, to include an intellectual exercise in orientation – these are good things. But how is the book to be chosen? Obviously it has to be something recent and newsy: an issue book that lends itself to ideological positioning. Or does it? This year, one of the members of the book-choice committee proposed that the whole group of proto-freshmen read either Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, or his Benito Cereno.
Does your heart not suddenly rise at the thought? These books, as their supporter points out, “deal with exactly the same ethical issues that the committee seems to be most interested in: the problems of respecting others, of living integrated ethical lives.” What is more, they are infinitely rich. It is possible to argue that no one should exit a four-year college without having read them. It is not possible to argue this of the topical choices on which the committee usually settles. Is this not reason enough?
But the Melville-fan has more reason. I quote here, with permission, from her argument. Having praised one of the issue books under consideration for its careful reflection on… well… an issue, she points out the problem with issue books in general. Either they are bad, in which case we shouldn’t be reading them, or they are good, in which case they simply inculcate. She writes:
“What bothers me about these texts is that in making ethical arguments, they leave very little room for debate, particularly within the confines of a one-hour conversation with freshmen. Thus, they seem to me to only offer the chance to continue what I see as a very unhappy tradition at [our college] which is the culture of liberal niceness – we do very little at [our college] to encourage dissent or empassioned argument. The strength of… these texts… is that it is very easy to understand the argument and very hard to disagree with. That easiness , I want to argue, is actually its weakness.
“The goal of a liberal arts education is to teach students not to become liberal or progressive people – notwithstanding [our college]’s commitment to diversity etc – but rather to teach them to become critical people: people who demand of the public sphere a certain kind of intellectual and critical rigor. This is important because democracy is, and should be, hard work. Democracy is a critical practice that depends on engaged, informed, empassioned, thinking citizens. In other words, it is not just okay to make students work hard to eke meaning out of their first year reading, it may in fact be our jobs to do so.”
Naturally she lost.