A number of colleges — not Mondoville, but many others — have required summer reading programs for incoming freshman. The idea is typically that the readings mark the transition to college and a new intellectual community.
While the idea is a good one, there seem to have been problems in practice. Unfortunately, as the Pope Center and National Association of Scholars have observed, most of these programs are marked by a leftist political slant and a low level of intellectual challenge. Too often, the academics who select the books choose their works on what they define as “relevance,” but what they actually offer is mere currency. In fact, I tend to agree with Roger Scruton’s friend, the late Msgr. Alfred Gilbey:
To be relevant means to accept the standard of the world in which you are, and therefore to cease to aspire beyond it.
Admittedly, education should be about the world that is, but it also must be about the world that was and the worlds that can be in order to matter. The danger is that, by being caught up in the now of soi-disant relevance, we do our students the disservice of locking them into a world in which they are mere recipients of action, incapable of understanding how the past has shaped the context of the present, and lacking the understanding to evaluate competing visions of the future. Programs like the summer readings under discussion don’t really awaken or challenge the student — they’re more like a warm bath that helps soften the students into a laodicean mass, to be shaped by whoever takes control.
Fortunately, an exception can be found at Bard College, where incoming frosh are expected to read Kafka and Darwin. The work is challenging, but college is supposed to be.
One of the functions of education is the transmission of culture — trying to preserve what Matthew Arnold famously described as “the best that has been thought and said.” Bard College gets that — and we should as well.