WALTHAM, MASS. — Summer reading for incoming college freshmen is a rite of passage. The goal of the professors who select the assignments is often to ignite grand inspiration and buoy lofty ideals among the university's newcomers. Others look for a theme that can provide for lively, orientation-week discussion and introduce students to the kind of intellectual give and take that will characterize their next four years.
At Brandeis University, in Waltham, Mass., faculty members reinforce the reading by having freshmen meet the night before school begins first in small groups, and then with an author.
This year, the book choice was Jonathan Kozol's "Amazing Grace," which details the social ills of the south Bronx in New York.
The topic is a good one for incoming students, according to faculty members. "One of the themes that we've seen animate the discussion sections is social justice," says Milton Kornfeld, an associate dean who sits on the committee that selected "Amazing Grace." "Here's a book where we have some obvious questions of inequity."
The day-to-day living conditions detailed in the book were "a lot worse than I could ever imagine," says freshman Matthew Andrews. "Even if you hear the facts, it doesn't paint the picture as the book does."
"This book was a call to action," says freshman Elida Kamine. "It's not just about the south Bronx; these problems are around the country. It made me want everyone to help, help, help."
Such reactions may be typical freshman idealism, something that many educators see dissipate once students confront post-graduate realities. But the goal is to find new ways to urge kids to think analytically and independently about what they read and learn in school, and to prepare them for testing both in the unforgiving circumstances of the real world.
The small discussion group was an attempt to show students how to do just this.
"This is one of the first contacts the students have with the faculty," says Dean Kornfeld. "It's in an informal session that emphasizes exchange and interaction."
It's also something that brings home a key attraction of college life: contact with a wider world than the one many students have known.
In this case, a handful of students who grew up in the south Bronx were able to bring the realities of living in the area to a classroom of students who only knew it as the grim wasteland described in the book.
"When I read this book, I said, 'This is not my neighborhood," says Jasmine Vallejo, a freshman who grew up in the Bronx. "He focused on all the negative things that are going on, and none of the positive. The reason I'm at Brandeis is because I was involved in the good things."
Students didn't deny the problems chronicled in the book, but some didn't agree with the perspective of someone who didn't grow up in their community.
"Students came up to me and were like, 'Oh, are you OK? Is it really that bad?" Jasmine says. "We explained, this is how we survived, these are the resources we found and here's how we got here."
At the same time, meeting with the author allowed these students to understand better his purpose in writing the book.
"He was trying to make people aware of the problems going on in this country," Jasmine says. "He didn't want to write anything positive because then people think they don't have to ... take responsibility."
In the end, the small groups clearly set some students thinking in new directions. "The small-group discussions really clarified things," says Jasmine. "They really opened a lot of eyes."
A novel idea
Summer reading isn't mandatory for many incoming freshmen in the US, but many universities and colleges at least provide some suggestions. Below are some of the books that either were required or suggested for incoming freshmen this year.
*Bowdoin College Brunswick, Maine Mississippi by Antony Walton
*Columbia University New York, N.Y. The Iliad by Homer
*Reed College Portland, Ore. The Iliad by Homer
*Carleton College Northfield, Minn. The Color of Water by James McBride
*University of California Berkeley Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne
*Davidson College Davidson, N.C. A Gracious Plenty by Sheri Reynolds
*Ohio Weslyan Delaware, Ohio The Crystal Frontier by Carlos Fuentes
*Connecticut College New London, Conn. Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society