Last year, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's summer reading program managed to stir up controversy and even litigation by choosing Michael Sells' book Approaching the Qur'an as the book incoming freshmen were expected to read. The problem with that book, which overlooks Islam's propensities toward intolerance and violence, was not that it was promoting religion, but that it was a waste of the students' time. With so many great books available, why bother with one that just slaps a smiley face on the serious problem of militant Islam?
This year's choice is no better, and arguably it's worse. Incoming freshmen are assigned to read Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. The book is a recounting of the author's experiment of abandoning her writing career for a few months to live as a low-paid worker. She worked as a waitress, a maid, and as a Wal-Mart saleslady. The work she found tiring, the conditions often unpleasant, and the pay barely adequate for a no-frills existence. Very enlightening -- "(Not)."
The dull, sometimes whiney narrative is capped off with a chapter that rants against free market capitalism. For example, Ehrenreich complains that the working poor can't find affordable and convenient housing because the wealthy buy up all the land for "condos, McMansions, golf courses, or whatever they like." It's just unenlightened griping without a hint of sober economic analysis -- an infomercial for the liberal welfare policies she favors.
Approaching the Qur'an was a waste of time, but Nickel and Dimed is truly pernicious. The book is designed to lead readers to believe that there is something "terribly wrong" with the United States because life is not easy for the poor. While Ehrenreich does not expressly advocate more government redistribution and intervention in the management of business, there is no doubt that she intends to sow those seeds. Having incoming students read this feeble book makes it seem as though UNC-CH is pushing a leftist, government-enhancing agenda, rather than trying to enhance student knowledge and reasoning ability.
The topic of poverty in the United States was recently examined by two excellent economists, W. Michael Cox and Richard Alm, in their book Myths of Rich and Poor. If UNC-CH were interested in intellectual diversity, it could have had students read both books and then compare them. Unfortunately, the summer reading committee decided that students should read only the book that draws a negative conclusion based on a tiny sample of personal experience, rather than one that draws a positive conclusion based on a wide-ranging evaluation of economic data and trends.
Perhaps, however, it isn't too late to salvage something from the wreckage. The UNC-CH administration could decide to require the Cox and Alm book (or some other book that argues against welfare and governmental intervention) in order to provide a counterweight to Nickel and Dimed. The cost would be small and the intellectual benefits considerable.
But of course, that idea wouldn't get a moment's consideration in Chapel Hill. The solution, therefore, is to turn to private enterprise. I suggest that one of the non-leftist student organizations on campus seek financial support so that it can make copies of Myths of Rich and Poor available to students who aren't content just to hear one side of the story. It might also be possible to email incoming students during the summer to let them know that there are books such as Myths of Rich and Poor that they might want to read along with Nickel and Dimed.
Chancellor Moeser promised to continue choosing "provocative" books after last year's uproar. I think he ought to focus on finding books that are intellectually broadening instead.