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National Praise for First-Year Reading, Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener


The first-year reading assignment for the class of 2017 is being praised by the National Associations of Scholars (NAS), which reports the book, Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener, is one of only four such assigned readings in the nation that could be considered a classic and one of only eight published before 1990. A story on the NAS study was reported on Publishing Perspectives, an online literary magazine.

The authors of the NAS study – Beach Books 2012-13: What Do Colleges and Universities Want Students to Read Outside the Classroom – evaluated books for the 309 colleges that gave its first-year students a reading assignment. “We aren’t advocating for any particular classic as a common reading,” the study reads. “Rather we dispute the idea that there is nothing to gain from having a classic as a common reading. So there is something here that needs to be explained: why is American higher education paying so little attention to common readings of books traditionally held in high esteem among educated people? Perhaps the problem is that colleges are refusing to pose real intellectual challenges to first-year students. Classic books are indeed a little more difficult than non-classics, and they require the reader to insert himself into a different era from his own. One reason why some colleges may shy away from assigning slightly more demanding works is that they admit significant numbers of ‘underprepared’ students whose need for remedial instruction in English lowers the bar for what their whole class can be expected to read in common. A journalist inquiring at NAS about this study asked, ‘Where is the balance between high standards and realism?’ While it is better for college students to read something rather than nothing, realism doesn’t have to mean catering to students’ comfort zones. It is not unrealistic to expect students who aspire to a college education to read challenging books.”

According to Le Moyne Provost Linda LeMura, Bartleby, the Scrivener was selected by the College for the very reason the study discusses. “We refuse to compromise on the common intellectual experience that reading a classic piece of literature like Bartleby evokes in our students,” said LeMura. “At Le Moyne, we are passionate in our belief that students who come here should be challenged in all intellectual areas, and that starts even before they set foot inside their first class.” The book was selected by a committee that included LeMura, English Chair Ann Ryan and Tom Brockleman, director of the College’s new Core Curriculum.

The class of 2017 is the first class to experience Le Moyne's new Core Curriculum. A centerpiece of the new Core is the first-year seminar. These courses, 32 sections in all, explore topics as varied as the history of mourning and grief to the philosophy of employment to the nature of words. One common thread that links these courses is the common reading; Melville’s Bartleby is a highly complex and provocative short story that becomes a gateway for students to the academic rigor and intellectual challenge of a Jesuit, liberal arts education. Not only are faculty using this text as a way of discussing the nature of scholarly inquiry and critical thinking, they are also using Bartleby as a touchstone, a point of reference for discussions about the consequences of capitalism, the role of the artist in America, and even the definition of character and the nature of heroism, among many other topics. The common reading at Le Moyne reflects our finest traditions and our commitment to challenging our students in the 21st century.


posted on: 8/30/2013