Friday, April 9, 2010

If You Could Give Your Students One Book

If you could give your students just one book to read, that you thought, hoped, might really affect them, reveal something to them, move them, perhaps provide even an epiphany, what would you ask them to read?

This is not just idle speculation. I recommend this as an exercise for faculty development workshops, especially those preparing higher educators to teach first-year seminar courses. I am a co-author of three different texts for that genre and I have no illusion that my books would meet the test I have just suggested!

I come to ask this non hypothetical question because I had a wonderful, transformative, empowering epiphany from a professor who asked and answering that very question.

It was the fall of 1961, and I was a poorly performing freshman at Marietta College. I was lonely and homesick, and especially missed a young woman 600 miles away “back home”. I was seventeen years old and to say that I was “undecided” did not do me justice. I had only one required course for the BA at Marietta and that was Speech 101. And I was failing that course. And that was because I had overcut the class to take several long weekends to go back home and see that special young woman. She didn’t make me do it. I made myself do it.

The professor called me in near the end of the term and offered me a deal and thereby introduced me to one of the oldest pedagogies known to professors: reading as punishment.

He gave me this choice: read these two books and stand an oral examination on your learning and receive at the most, a D for the course; or reject the deal and get an F. I choose to read the two books.

What were they?
1. Escape from Freedom by Erich Fromm.
2. The Lonely Crowd by David Riesman.

I had no idea how much smarter this prof was than I was! Fromm’s book was and is an analysis of why the most liberal democracy in Western Europe voluntarily ended democracy and elected a dictator, Adolph Hitler in 1933. The author’s argument: freedom is a burden that cannot be handled well by some people. And my professor knew I was not handling my college freedom (to attend or not attend my classes) well at all. This book really forced me to examine my behavioral choices, my uses of freedom.

The other work, The Lonely Crowd, Riesman’s masterpiece that catapulted him to prominence in the lay press, was an insightful argument about how American society produces two types of people: 1. The “inner directed man”; and 2. The “outer directed man”. Reading this I knew that I had to choose to become an “inner directed man” who marched to the beat of his own drummer, his own inner values. And the work helped me understand many of the values that I had required from my childhood exposure to children’s literature in our society.

Years later, in 1980, I received an unsolicited letter from David Riesman. He was writing to ask me some questions in response to a book review I had had published in the Journal of Higher Education. It was truly a thrill to hear from this eminent scholar who had had such an influence on me as a very youthful college student just beginning his own journey of intellectual self discovery through higher education. Professor Riesman and I developed a correspondence that went on for over a decade. And it was the old fashion kind: letters. In 1990, my now wife, Dr. Betsy Barefoot, and I went up to Harvard to interview him; spent three hours with him; taped our conversation and then Betsy edited and had printed our interview in The Journal of The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition.

Why all this interest in Professor Riesman? Because as one of the world’s most distinguished sociologists of the twentieth century, he had also chaired the faculty committee which had created Harvard’s freshman seminar in 1959. We wanted to know what led him to do that? And how was his seminar similar or different in its objectives than our seminar, University 101, at the University of South Carolina. Better leave that to a future blog. If you want a copy of the interview, write the Journal Editor at the USC National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition.

If my comments about Fromm have interested you, you should know that his best seller was a little book which sold in the multi, multi million copies: The Art of Loving. This is a must gift for someone you love.

So back to my original question: if you could give your students one book (and, of course, you can) that could really influence them, what would it be? And when you have answered that question, I hope you will take the next step and do it.

-John Gardner

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