The Compromised Life of Common-Reading Programs

This month, the National Institutes of Health announced that it had reached an agreement with members of the Lacks family that would give them some rights to privacy over a widely used line of cultured cells.  The case involved cells derived from a cancerous cervical tumor in a woman who died from the disease in 1951. Black and poor, Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with cancer at age 29. By the time she went to the Johns Hopkins University clinic, she had only months left to live.

Her inadvertent legacy is that her uterine tumor cells proved to be the first human cells that kept growing and reliably reproducing in vitro, creating a powerful tool for medical research. Henrietta wasn’t asked to contribute the cells and apparently knew nothing about their use.

And therein hangs the tale made famous by Rebecca Skloot. Her best-selling The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2010) is an odd amalgam. She reconstructs what she can of the life of Henrietta, mixes it with a memoir of her own quest to turn up the facts, adds in a bit of the scientific background, and gives generous space to the disappointment of current members of the Lacks family, who didn’t see any monetary benefit from the HeLa cells.

The NIH decision made national news, but behind that decision is the success of Skloot’s book, and behind her success is the burgeoning phenomenon of college “common reading” programs.

More than 300 colleges and universities in the United States now assign a single book to incoming freshmen to read over the summer; sometimes all students are required to do the reading. These assignments aren’t for academic credit. Rather, they are promoted as a way of building “community,” emphasizing “values,” and giving students some shared reference points beyond music and movies.

For the last three years, the National Association of Scholars has been tracking who reads what. As it happens, according to its report Beach Books: 2012-2013: What Do Colleges and Universities Want Students to Read Outside Class?, last year 31 of these programs (one in 10) picked The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks for its common reading. It was the second year running in which Skloot’s book bested all rivals. Number 2, chosen by 18 colleges, was The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates 2010), about the lives of two very different boys of the same name growing up in a ghetto. Number 3, chosen by nine colleges, was Outcasts United: A Refugee Team, an American Town, a 2009 book by the journalist Warren St. John about a boys’ soccer team whose members are from refugee families.

The common-reading programs are a veritable industry for authors like Skloot, who tours as a campus speaker, has a Web site, teaching materials keyed to her book, short videos on her research methods, and even a Jeopardy-style game. Oprah Winfrey plans to make a movie of the book.

We stumbled on summer reading programs when my colleague at NAS, Ashley Thorne became curious about how widespread they were. What themes, formats, and other features go into turning a book into a college common reading? 

The patterns are not subtle or elusive. Contemporary writing is king: 97 percent of the colleges assigned books published in or after 1990. Cinema is regent: At least 66 of the 190 books have film versions. Translation is unwelcome: Only six were first written in a language other than English. Me is first: Memoir was by far the most popular genre, accounting for 92 titles. Nonfiction rules: 71 of the colleges assigned fiction, while 242 assigned nonfiction. 

From my perspective, those findings are lamentable—but not likely to kick up much controversy. What is lamentable is the scant attention to important books, let alone classics; the relentless emphasis on the short-term and easily accessible; and the dominance of books that emphasize personal perspectives over efforts to know the world as it really is. Literature is not entirely neglected but is overshadowed by what are now called (courtesy of the Common Core Standards) “informational texts.” Taken collectively, the readings are uncommonly light for students about to undertake a college education. 

But then again, the colleges themselves say the purpose is to “build community.” Some do add words to the effect that they aim to prepare students for the intellectually demanding books that lie ahead, though the results aren’t very convincing. Indeed, there may not be so many intellectually demanding books in the semesters to come.  For all too many students, after the airy beach balls of summer come the Macy’s Parade of books by Howard Zinn, Carol Gilligan, Barbara Ehrenreich, etc.

Which brings me back to the question, what kind of book is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks?

One important part of the answer is what Skloot’s book is not. It is not a Zinn-like picking of chokecherries to excoriate America’s past. It isn’t a Gilligan-like voice of tendentious claims that girls are better than boys. It isn’t an Ehrenreich-like venture in class warfare.  It is, rather, a highly readable, well-researched work of journalism, touched with a bit of the long-since-mainstreamed “new journalism” of writers like Tom Wolfe and John McPhee, though nowhere close to their imaginative power.

It is also an indictment of the American medical establishment as aloof, unfeeling, and racist. It is a book that is meant to stir racial grievance, and it accomplishes that goal without resort to inflammatory language or heavy-handed tactics. Was it fair that the Lacks family remained poor while presumably millions upon millions of dollars were made based on exploitation of the HeLa cells? The book posits an implicit verdict: Of course it is unjust.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks commands the heights of the college common-reading programs because it fits with the political narrative that most of our colleges prefer: America is an unjust nation that has an endless amount of atoning ahead for the ways it has exploited the weak, the poor, and minorities.

Most of the books assigned in the common-reading programs similarly serve to soften up students for the PC juggernaut they are about to encounter. Ninety-four of the 318 common-reading assignments deal with multiculturalism, immigration, racism, or poverty in America. Eighteen deal with animal rights. Fourteen with political activism. Twelve with women’s issues. Nine with environmentalism. Books loosely classified as “classics” (e.g. Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People; Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein) make up all of five assignments. The past 3,000 years of Western history might as well not exist, and the written accomplishments of non-English speakers, European or otherwise, have likewise been brushed aside in favor of acquainting students with what are judged to be the political urgencies of our times. 

This is a mistake even if—unlike me—you think the topics that are emphasized really are urgent. At the beginning of their college studies, students deserve a taste of the real thing: books that ask more in the way of effort than their high-school assignments did; books that will have lasting value in their courses and in their lives; books that treat them as thinking adults who can come to grips with the complexity of the world. 

What the students get all too often is soft manipulation, where sentiment, empathy, and affinity displace careful analysis and imaginative scope. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks isn’t a bad book. Very few of the books in the common readings are bad in the sense of being poorly written or dull. But most of them fall well short of excellent.

A few years ago, as provost of a small liberal-arts college, I too had a common-reading program. I assigned Melville’s The Confidence-Man in one round, and Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress in another. Demanding books, they did what they were supposed to do: gave students a fair taste of what was to come and a strong sense of accomplishment. And they put the students in the midst of conversations that, if not immortal, would continue for the rest of their lives.

Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars.

Return to Top