These are the times that try men’s souls, what with the cold winter nights and the over-heated days of politics and economics and culture and the rest of the bad news blowing by, so our first instinct is to curl up in bed with a good book. Lately our preference has been for P.G. Wodehouse and S.J. Perelman and Evelyn Waugh and similarly fatalistic humorists of the even drearier past, but we always advise the young folks that there’s also something to be said for more sober fare.
In our meanderings around the internet we happened upon the reading lists that students at the supposedly top colleges in the United States are now dutifully poring through, and all in all we were happily surprised. Based on the reports we’re reading from academia and the impression we’ve gleaned from conversations with its more recent graduates, we’d assumed that all that was required for a degree these days was a smidgen of politicized science and some multi-cultural mathematics along with a passing familiarity with such commie agitprop as “A People’s History of America” and “Wretched of the Earth,” along with a representative sampling of fiction from the ever-expanding universe of racial and sexual identities. The reading list does confirm these suspicions in some cases, but the young-uns are also getting some sterner stuff.
Apparently the most-taught work of fiction at America’s colleges is Mary Wollstonecraft-Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” with Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” coming in a close second, which is somewhat worrisome. Not that they’re bad books — we thought “Frankenstein” a fun-to-read and better-than-the-movie horror story with a few interesting philosophical implications when we picked it up the summer vacation after sixth grade, and we found all the flatulence and fornication in “Canterbury Tales” most amusing when it was assigned to us in junior high, so we won’t deny them their rightful place in the Canon — but we suspect they’re on the list for the wrong reasons. It’s not just that a college student should have already surpassed our sorry-assed inner-city junior high’s requirements well before entering a “top university,” but also a nagging suspicion that Wollstonecraft-Shelley is mostly there because she’s a woman, albeit a white woman from a certain high class and ornate literary tradition, and because she’s offering a cautionary tale about science and all the rest of that worrisome western civilization stuff, and that Chaucer is still there despite being not only dead and white but also male only as a reminder that white men were always telling smutty jokes.
We also note, with a Wollstonecraft-Shelley sense of horror, the complete absence of William Shakespeare from the most-taught lists of any of the “top colleges” in the United States. Although we grant that The Bard is about as dead and white and male as an author can get, well, c’mon, he’s still The Bard. If even he can’t crash the glass quota ceiling, what chance we do we still-living yet mere mortal white males stand of getting a future reading? And that’s not to mention academia’s apparent complete lack of familiarity with The Holy Bible and its even more formidable author.
We have not read the most-assigned history text, “America: A Narrative History,” by George Brown Tindall and David Emory Shi, but we’re going to tentatively assume it’s commie agitprop, and nor have we read the second-most assigned, Anne Moody’s “Coming of Age in Mississippi,” which is described as “a memoir of life by an African-American woman in Jim Crow America,” but while we don’t doubt that it’s a worthy book neither do we doubt why it supersedes other worthy books about the broader American history. “The Communist Manifesto” is the third most-taught history book, and top title in sociology departments, which made sense when we read it way back in the Cold War days to familiarize ourselves with the enemy’s wicked ideology and wily ways, but in these days of Bernie-mania it’s probably offered as a how-to manual.
Still, we found some solace in the broader reading list. Plato’s “Republic” is somehow the overall most-assigned text at the supposed “top ten” colleges, despite his deadness and whiteness and maleness, and although his ancient Greekness might earn him some some sympathy from the homosexual lobby we’d like to think he’s there as a starting point for the best of Hellenic thought. Number two is Thomas Hobbes’ “The Leviathan,” which is most surprising and especially pleasing to us. Most surprising because Hobbes is just as dead and white and male as Shakespeare as ever was, and especially delightful because we recall arguing with some adjunct teaching assistant and annoying Rousseau-ian fellow who hangs out at Kirby’s Beer Store haranguing about peak oil and how humanity’s gone downhill ever since agriculture and how we all need to get to back to the caves, and when we quoted “The Leviathan’s” old line about life in a state of nature being “nasty, brutish, and short,” which we usually use only when telling mother-in-law jokes, he sneered at us and scoffed that “Nobody reads Hobbes any more.”
Coming in at number three is Niccolo Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” which seems so timely we’re not altogether surprised. Although he’s also dead and white and male, Machiavelli was the first to explain the “Chicago Way” that has defined the past seven years of the Obama administration, as well as the methodology of the front-running Republican candidate who hopes to succeed it, and we expect it will be useful to students in all majors from business administration to community organizing. Downright stunning is the fourth-place finisher, Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations,” an extraordinary work of scholarship that frankly describes western civilization’s unavoidable conflicts with other cultures, including the ones that are usually politely left unmentioned in most of academia, and doesn’t recommend capitulation. If even one righteous man could have redeemed Sodom and Gomorrah, perhaps such a righteous book as “Clash of Civilization” will spare even modern academia from God’s wrath.
Our well-worn copy of Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style,” still occupying a place of honor on our reference book shelf, right there next to the “Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual” and “The Complete Hoyle,” also takes its place as the fifth-most assigned book in academia. We have mixed feelings about that, as we think that the venerable pair’s rules of plain English represent a vast improvement over the current academic jargon and jibber-jab, but we also think they’re sometimes plain to the point of Amishness. Aristotle’s “Ethics” comes in sixth, continuing the lessons of that dead white male Hellenic thing, and we’re glad to see that. Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” comes in seventh, and we freely concede that we have not read that yet, although the title sounds intriguing and we eagerly await the movie showing up on Netflix.
Another happy sight on the top ten is Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” which describes a ruggedly individualistic and rapidly expanding nation of free association and town hall government and a European-galling whisky-swigging and church-going capitalism, a happy time before the Chicago Way took over. The ninth and tenth spots went to “The Communist Manifesto” and Aristotle’s “The Politics,” respectively, and we’d like to think that at least evens out.
They’re still teaching Max Weber’s thesis on “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” at Princeton, along with Thucydides and Henry Kissinger, and Harvard top pick is Martin Luther King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” with all its dangerous talk of God and natural law and resisting unjust laws of government but not undermining the very notion of law, and we’re guessing it’s good news that Harvard also has “Principles of Corporate Finance” on its own top ten books. Over at Yale the Federal Reserve Bank’s “Quarterly Review” comes in just ahead of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” proving that black lives matter to proper Elis but do so those portfolios, and all the other swank colleges have some good reads on their students’ lists. There’s the usual commie agitprop, of course, but we expect the good stuff will make a stronger impression.
We do hope those hard-working students will find some time, in between their studies and protests and “culture of rape” social lives to enjoy some Wodehouse or Perelman or Waugh or other humorous fatalist. We recommend “The Things that are Caesar’s” and “This Town Is Nowhere” or anything by that Mark Twain guy, and we expect that you’re going to get an education one way or another.
— Bud Norman