What Do You Give Your Students to Read—to Get Them to Discover What Matters Most?

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Recently I was asked by one of my publishers to complete an author survey. And one of the questions was truly impossible for me to answer as requested. It read something to the effect “what was the book that has influenced you most significantly?" What I found impossible was to choose one! I found the exercise interesting and worthwhile not only because of the sheer number of books that I would so classify as having been of “most significant influence,” but what those books were and especially what time of life was I exposed to these written ideas/experiences, and how this would help form my ideas on social justice.

So, they began coming to me almost as a crescendo.

There were two books in my first-year of college, when I was doing terribly on the academic front and was lonely, homesick lovesick. And they were mandated by one of my first-term professors to read and to be the subjects of an oral examination if I wanted to raise my final grade in Speech 101 from an F to a D. Most valuable D I ever received. He had me read David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (1953), a book really for academics but one that sold well beyond that for laypeople. Riesman, a Harvard professor, lawyer and sociologist, one of the greatest of the 20th century, and also a scholar of the American college and university presidency. The Lonely Crowd was an argument that America produces two kinds of people: the Inner Directed Man and the Outer Directed Man (the direction being in reference to who and what are our influencers, inner vs outer oriented stimuli. My professor wanted me to examine that question for myself. What kind of person was I—was I becoming—or could become? Riesman analyzed a number of our culture’s favorite stories for children and he forced me to think about how I had been influenced by the stories I had read as a child. And nineteen years after being made to read his book, Riesman wrote me an unsolicited letter in 1980 raising some questions with me based on an article of mine he had read in the Journal of Higher Education, about one of my—and as it turns out—his favorite subjects. Riesman was also the founder of Harvard’s first-year seminar, in 1959, two years before I became a first-year student.

The other book was Escape from Freedom, by Erich Fromm, a German psychoanalyst, who escaped from the Third Reich and wrote a compelling analysis of why the German people, at the time the most literate of any of the European democracies, had voluntary given up their freedoms in 1933. The book was really about what for some of us is the burden of freedom, the challenge of making decisions on our own. And there I was, as the professor knew full well, a young man who had abused his freedom by overcutting this class, six times in fact. Why do some college students, for example, voluntarily decide to give up a number of their freedoms to join certain groups that make many of their decisions for them (such as with whom to associate), groups especially like fraternities and sororities? This book invited me to consider the uses, the choices, albeit the abuses, I was making with my freedom. And I concluded that I needed to reconsider some of those choices. And it was several years later, also while in college, that I read Fromm’s perennial best seller, The Art of Loving, which argues that before anyone can love anyone else, they have to be capable of self-love, meaning self-respect.

And then there was my reading of Plato’s Republic in the fall of my junior year, in a political philosophy class. We examined some of the most important questions that any society has to constantly be in the process of deciding: who should rule? Plato was having Socrates argue that philosophers should be kings. And the related question, that my whole adult life has been in pursuit of: what is justice? By then I was getting the idea that what was really happening to me in college is that I was learning that the questions can often be more important than the answers. To have a meaningful life you have to be asking and pursuing the right questions. In this same course, on the day of class that the professor was going to lead us through Plato’s argument about “who should rule” our class was interrupted by the shocking news of the assassination of President Kennedy on November 20, 1963.

And then also that fall, in a course on Transcendental American writers, I was taking a very deep dive in the complete works of essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson. I have never been the same since reading Self-Reliance. Thank goodness. I was really ready to receive Emerson’s call to intellectual individualism. And I was so fortunate I had a professor who knew just how to do that so skillfully. I didn’t go to college expecting that I would come to love Emersonian prose but that’s exactly what happened. The course influenced me to do a research project to ascertain what might have been the influence on Emerson of New England Unitarianism. And I thought that to understand this question and possibility even more thoroughly I should try to grapple with it experientially. I did so be joining a small handful of other congregants who attended the weekly service of the Marietta, Ohio Unitarian Church. I learned that that faith was all about what my college experience had become: a search for the truth, my truths, which were being discovered by me through reading and interaction with the interpreters of those readings, my professors. What powers they had over me. And I allowed them to help me discover my own powers for discovery, and then to influence others.

In my junior year, I took an elective biology course in a course titled “Conservation.” We were required to reach Rachel Carson’s The Silent Spring; the work that is generally credited with launching the now more than fifty-year-old “environmental” movement. Before this book, I had not given one thought to what I and my fellow men and women were doing to our environment. This work really changed me.

In my senior year, I read Joseph Heller’s first novel, Catch-22. Sadly, Heller was a one author great thinker. Try as hard as he did in a succession of following books, all of which I faithfully read, none of them did for me, let alone any of the critics, like what Catch-22 did. The first time I read Catch-22, I really didn’t get it, the “it” being the power of his satire of the insanity of bureaucratic life and thinking, as personified by Heller in the US Army of World War II. But two years later when I was on active duty in the US Air Force, and read Catch-22 again, then it hit me. He had finally showed me how bureaucracies work, often making some of their members literally crazy, by the non-rationality of some of their arbitrary rules and processes.

So, as I was recalling what I had read of greatest influence, and when I did that reading and thinking, that all these greatest influencers had come during undergraduate school. How could this be? This doesn’t mean I stopped reading upon graduating from college! Absolutely not. But I can’t think of anything that I have read since college that had the same level of formative influence on my most important understandings—of myself, my work, my culture, my role in society, human group and individual behavior—you name it. I can only conclude then that I was in a unique period of openness to new ideas, to being influenced, to self-discovery. But that openness had to be facilitated, nourished, encouraged, reinforced. And my professors and a few fellow students were the ones who did so. I was developmentally ready, hungry even. And the college experience was there for me, ready for me, able to develop me in only ways that it could. I am so thankful.

I have often asked my workshop audiences what they remember reading that had some influence during their first-year of college. Almost to a person, each group member can recall something specific. Maybe this is just because I work in the world of the academic bubble. These people liked being in college and so they have stayed in it for their adult lives. They truly were influenced. I know that once I experienced this influence I never wanted to leave it.

I have had much less success asking my students, particularly first-year students, what it is they read before college that has influenced them. They struggle with this, in part because no one has asked them this before.

In conclusion, I ask you: what were the great written works that influenced you? And what do you have your students read with the hope that this work and your guidance of them to and through it will be of significant influence? I know, it took me a long time here to get to my question. And the question for you should be much more important than the answers I have offered, just as has been the lasting impact of some of the questions I learned to ask in college, especially: what is justice? My whole adult professional life has been devoted to that question.

Originally published on jngi.org on May 10, 2017.

About the Author
John N. Gardner brings unparalleled experience to students as an author. The recipient of his institution's highest award for teaching excellence, John has over forty years of experience directing and teaching in the most widely emulated first-year seminar in the country, the University 101 course at the University of South Carolina (USC), Columbia. John is universally recognized as one of the country's leading educators for his role in initiating and orchestrating an international reform movement to improve the beginning college experience, a concept he coined as "the first-year experience." He is the founding executive director of the National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition at USC, as well as the Policy Center on the First Year of College and the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education (www.jngi.org), both based in Brevard, N.C.