In Sight

The Literary Canon Shaping the Future

An online database explores what college students are reading.

by Christopher Ingraham
©2016, THE WASHINGTON POST

If you want an Ivy League education, you could fork over $200,000 or so and go to Cornell or Harvard for four years. Alternatively, you could save a ton of cash by simply reading the same books Ivy League students are assigned.

That became easier recently with the release of the Open Syllabus Explorer, an online database of books assigned in over 1 million college courses over the past decade or so.

As the group behind the project explains: There’s an “intellectual judgment embedded” in the lists of books college students are required to read. The most frequently assigned books at the nation’s universities are essentially our canon: the body of literature that society’s leaders are expected to be familiar with. So what does that canon look like?

For starters, the Explorer lets us filter by individual schools. I tallied the most frequently assigned books at all U.S. colleges and universities and compared them to the list at seven Ivy League schools—Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Cornell, Columbia, U. Penn and Brown.

Most frequently assigned books at all colleges and at Ivy League schools, by number of syllabus appearances.
Most frequently assigned books at all colleges and at Ivy League schools, by number of syllabus appearances.

Across all schools, Strunk & White’s classic writing guide The Elements of Style is the most common book, assigned in over 3,000 courses in the Explorer’s database. Plato’s Republic is the second-most popular, appearing close to 2,500 times. The 1,500-page Campbell Biology textbook comes in at third place, perhaps a nod to the nation’s pre-med students.

Appearing fourth on the list, Marx and Engels’ The Communist Manifesto is sure to raise some eyebrows. Its popularity makes a certain amount of sense, given that it may be the most well-known critique of the capitalist system we all know and love. But that’s not likely to comfort anyone who’s convinced the nation’s universities are breeding grounds for bearded Marxist extremism.

The Ivy League list is considerably different, however. Plato’s Republic is the top book there, with Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations coming in a close second. The Elements of Style makes an appearance, as do poli-sci classics Leviathan and The Prince. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail comes in at No. 8 in the Ivy Leagues.

Overall, the Ivy League list is heavily skewed toward political philosophy and thought. The Explorer lets you filter by subject area, too.

There’s a little more agreement among English courses, with ve books in common across the two lists. The No. 1 work of fiction taught at American schools is Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein. At the Ivies, on the other hand, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is No. 1 (raise your hand if you still bear psychological scars for having to memorize Middle English verse during your formative years).

The most frequently assigned books at the nation’s universities are essentially our canon.

Milton’s Paradise Lost is universally assigned, as are Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. But across all schools, works by American authors (T.S. Eliot’s Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, Charlotte Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper) are more commonly assigned than at the Ivies, where British authors are more prominent.

The Explorer also lets you filter only by colleges and universities in a given state.

The Elements of Style is the No. 1 college book in 13 states. The Communist Manifesto is also popular, showing up as No. 1 in six states. But there’s a lot of variety otherwise. In Delaware, for instance, the top college book is a computer programming textbook. In Alabama, physics is king. Alaska appears to be a breeding ground for future petroleum engineers, while students in Nevada get a firm grounding in how numbers can be deceiving.

The folks who built the Open Syllabus Explorer are the first to admit that their data are incomplete and likely contain a fair number of errors. They’ve built their list by scraping publicly available college websites, as well as submissions from individual professors. So if a college doesn’t put course syllabi on public-facing pages, it’s not going to show up in the list.

Still, with more than 1 million syllabi in the database, it’s currently the best approximation we have for what students are actually reading in college—and for the books that are informing the leaders of tomorrow.


Did You Know?
SGI President Ikeda has delivered 32 university lectures around the world on peace, culture, education and Buddhist philosophy, including two at Harvard University, in 1991 and 1993.