The ‘required reading’ that moulds American students’ minds

Women writers are still largely marginalised on syllabuses, particularly in the Ivy League, according to new study

January 24, 2021
Student at the library
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A lack of diversity on syllabuses may make an impact on how students see the world

Many students are shaped for life by the books they are assigned in college – so what are they required to read across the US?

To answer that, DegreeQuery – a company that provides information on “the most common questions about college degrees and career options” – carried out a study which drew on the reading lists for more than 3.6 million syllabuses at over 2,500 colleges collected by Open Syllabus. It broke the figures down by state, into five subject areas and between Ivy League universities and the eight “top public schools” for 2021, as determined by US News and World Report.

In no less than 17 states, the single most assigned book was a guide to good writing. Nine more states opted for an introductory maths text, but titles on “spiritual ecology”, clinical drug therapy and early childhood education headed the lists in Connecticut, Kansas and Wyoming.

Perhaps reflecting widespread anxieties about where science is leading us, the standout literary text was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which appeared on at least 5,000 syllabuses and was the most assigned title on English courses across 12 states; Kate Chopin’s 1894 short story The Story of an Hour topped the same list in three more. Yet the broader picture for gender diversity was far more bleak. Only 20 of the 100 most assigned books in US colleges had female authors (and two had mixed authors), and this included writing guides and nursing handbooks, so a mere six were novels or political treatises. In English literature, however, the top 10 books assigned at public schools were notably more diverse than in the Ivy League, with Toni Morrison and Virginia Woolf featuring alongside Mary Shelley.

There were no overlaps in the business books most assigned in the two lists, although those read in the Ivy League tended to be older. In computer science, the Ivy League titles tended to be more theoretical, while those taught at public schools focused on specific programming languages. Adam Smith and Paul Krugman made the cut in the top 10 economics books, alongside Hal Varian, author of Intermediate Macroeconomics, in both classes of institution.

Among over 135,000 titles analysed on political science syllabuses, one strikingly prominent book was Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. Since this was published in 1996, it has attracted much criticism for its theoretical framework, list of separate “civilisations” and US-focused concept of “world order”; it has even been accused of racism. Yet it appeared on more than 2,700 syllabuses and was the single most assigned political science book in a record-breaking nine states. In both Ivy League universities and public schools, it took second place only to Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. Its prominence may raise questions about the perspectives on the world students are likely to acquire in American universities.

matthew.reisz@timeshighereducation.com

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