Over at Inside Higher Ed they have a news report on complaints about the content of required reading for students entering college. This comes from the National Association of Scholars, a group dedicated to complaining that multiculturalism is
corrupting our precious bodily fluids pushing aside the shared heritage of Western civilization, so most of it is pretty predictable. I was surprised by one thing in their list of commonly assigned books this year, though:
What are the freshmen reading? Based on the report’s analysis of 290 programs (excluding books that are required parts of courses), the top books this year are This I Believe (an essay collection assigned at 11 colleges), followed by Enrique’s Journey (the story of a Honduran boy’s struggle to reach his mother in the United States, assigned at 10 colleges) and two books assigned at 9 colleges each, Three Cups of Tea (about building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan) and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (about a poor woman who worked on a tobacco farm whose cells were used, without her knowledge, for research).
The presence of Rebecca Skloot’s book on this list is a pleasant surprise. I usually tune out all discussion of these lists (including Union’s required reading, which was mentioned in a recent meeting, and immediately forgotten) because they never seem to involve science in any way, and that gets me off on a rant. If the purpose of these is to begin introducing students to the larger intellectual universe as they enter college, it seems a travesty to neglect one of the most important and influential areas of human endeavor. And yet, suggestions that they might include some science content– I’m not talking The Feynman Lectures on Physics, here, or even How to Teach Physics to Your Dog (though it would be an excellent choice if anybody is interested…), but some of the many excellent books that involve both history and science, like David Lindley’s Uncertainty, for example– tend to fall on deaf ears, and we end up with yet another short-ish novel about someone’s difficult upbringing.
So, as I said, I’m pleasantly surprised to see The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks making it onto lists of first-year reading assignments. I haven’t read it myself, but it’s gotten very good buzz in science blogdom, and will hopefully introduce some students to the idea that science is not just scary nerd stuff, but an integral part of human culture.
Which, of course, brings up an obvious question:
What popular science books ought to be considered as possible required reading for all students entering college?
That is, if you were given the absolute and autocratic power to pick the book that all first-year students on your campus were going to be forced to read and discuss before arriving, what science-related book would you choose?
I’d probably go for Uncertainty, as mentioned above, because it covers the historical development of quantum physics, one of the towering intellectual achievements of modern civilization, but also includes lots of personal stories and historical anecdotes for those who aren’t into the science. There’s a lot of good material about how science is really done, and some ethical questions are brought up in the process that could be good fodder for discussion (the distribution of Nobel Prizes, for example) for people who don’t want to have to think about actual physics.
That’s a quick guess at an appropriate sort of book, though. I’m sure I’m forgetting some good possibilities, so suggest them in the comments.