Required College Reading List: Books Students at the Top US Colleges Read

Required College Reading List: Books Students at the Top US Colleges Read
Imed Bouchrika, Phd by Imed Bouchrika, Phd
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

Every college course requires students to read a certain number of books or other literary works. The majority of curricula, if not all, are built around one or more of these books, given the mind’s huge capacity to store memories as explored by the information processing model of memory. A required college reading list as a whole reflects a university’s scholarly climate. Examining the required humanities and philosophy texts in the top U.S. colleges makes it especially clear.

To understand the impact of required readings on students’ academic training, the Open Syllabus Project (OSP) gathered copious amounts of data. Leaders across industries are frequently produced by top universities. As a result, investigating the body of literature they read in college is a fascinating look at their intellectual growth and how it affected them today.

This article examines some of the most popular required readings at top U.S. colleges. It will also highlight the OSP and its purpose.

Required Readings at Top U.S. Colleges: Table of Contents

  1. What are the most-read books in top U.S. colleges?
  2. Books Read in Ivy League Schools vs. Other Universities
  3. About the Open Syllabus Project

What are the most-read books in top U.S. colleges?

Students eyeing a bachelor’s degree in philosophy or other related fields could expect a more extensive reading list than the rest. Some of the most popular titles on the OSP are humanities and philosophy. This is unsurprising as science and engineering courses tend to assign fewer books. Interestingly, most assigned books are written by authors from the West.

The top assigned readings vary in each university. While this depends on the number of courses that require them, it also shows how each HEI develops its syllabus. Here are the most popular required readings in top U.S. universities.

Letter from the Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King, Jr. (Harvard)

letter from birmingham

The Letter from the Birmingham Jail, also known as The Negro is Your Brother, serves as an open letter to the public. It highlights the moral responsibility of people to break unjust laws. The work also talks about why the public needs to take direct action instead of waiting for justice to arrive through the courts (King, 2001). Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote it as a response to A Call for Unity during the Birmingham campaign. It became a significant text for the American Civil Rights Movement.

It is commonly assigned in the following courses/subjects (in order of appearance in various syllabi):

  • English Literature
  • Political Science
  • History
  • Philosophy
  • Religion
  • Law
  • Social Work
  • Theology
  • Sociology
  • Media and Communications

The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order by Samuel P. Huntington (Princeton, Columbia)

the clash of civilizations

In The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World, Samuel P. Huntington argues that wars are not fought between countries but between cultures. The book is an expansion of his thesis and serves as a response to Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man. In his work, Huntington highlights the primary axis of conflict, which centers on cultural lines. He refers to civilizations as the highest rank of cultural identity. He posits that civilizations will be useful in analyzing the potential for conflict in the future (Huntington, 2014).

It is commonly assigned in the following courses/subjects (in order of appearances in various syllabi):

  • Political Science
  • History
  • Sociology
  • Business
  • English Literature
  • Religion
  • Media and Communications
  • Theology
  • Anthropology
  • Criminal Justice

Republic by Plato (Yale)

republic by plato

The Republic is Plato’s most popular work. It is a Socratic dialogue that tackles justice, the character and the order of the just city-state, and the just man. In the dialogue, Socrates conducts conversations with various foreigners and Athenians about the meaning of justice. His discussion also includes the question of whether the just man is happier than the unjust. They compare hypothetical cities and examine regimes which culminate in the proposition of Kallipolis, a utopian city-state with a philosopher-king as its leader (Plato, Emlyn-Jones, & Preddy, 2013).

It is commonly assigned in the following courses/subjects (in order of appearances in various syllabi):

  • Philosophy
  • Political Science
  • English Literature
  • History
  • Classics
  • Education
  • Business
  • Religion
  • Theatre Arts
  • Theology

Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes (Stanford, Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

leviathan by thomas hobbes

The Leviathan, also known as the Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil, was published in 1651. Its name was derived from the Leviathan, a sea serpent mentioned in various Jewish texts and the Bible. Thomas Hobbes’ work outlines the structure of society and the characteristics of a legitimate government. It argues for a social contract by an absolute sovereign (Hobbes, 2020). It is known to be one of the earliest texts discussing the social contract theory.

It is commonly assigned in the following courses/subjects (in order of appearance in various syllabi):

  • Political Science
  • Philosophy
  • History
  • English Literature
  • Law
  • Sociology
  • Anthropology
  • Religion
  • Economics
  • Theology

Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle (University of Chicago)

nichomachean ethics by aristotle

The Nicomachean Ethics is a collection of 10 books based on Aristotle’s notes from his lecture at the Lyceum. It played a role in defining Aristotelian ethics. The text’s overall theme explores the works of Plato, a close confidant, and teacher of Aristotle, about how men should live their best lives (Aristotle & Beresford, 2020). It is considered one of the most influential historical and philosophical texts. Aristotle’s texts became one of the core works of medieval philosophy and played a critical role in developing modern philosophy.

It is commonly assigned in the following courses/subjects (in order of appearances in various syllabi):

  • Philosophy
  • Political Science
  • English Literature
  • History
  • Theology
  • Business
  • Religion
  • Classics
  • Law
  • Education

Introduction to Econometrics by James H. Stock (Duke)

introduction of econometrics

The Introduction to Econometrics includes fundamental topics in econometrics along with its interesting applications. It also touches on statistics and probabilities as well as regression with cross-sectional data. The book also comes with a capstone chapter that outlines empirical analysis. The aim of the material is to motivate the learners to use various theories and tools in real-world applications (Stock & Watson, 2020).

It is commonly assigned in the following courses/subjects (in order of appearances in various syllabi):

  • Economics
  • Business
  • Mathematics
  • Political Science
  • Education
  • Accounting

Oedipus Rex by Sophocles (University of Pennsylvania)

oedipus rex

Oedipus Rex, also known as Oedipus the King or Oedipus Tyrannus, is an Athenian tragedy first performed around 429 A.D. It is part of Sophocles’ Theban plays that tells the story of Oedipus. The text tells Oedipus’ search for Laius’ murder in order to end the plague in Thebes (Sophocles & Dawe, 2006). Some of the themes in the play and text included free will, state control, and irony. It is considered to be a masterpiece of ancient Greek tragedy.

It is commonly assigned in the following courses/subjects (in order of appearances in various syllabi):

  • English Literature
  • Theatre Arts
  • Classics
  • History
  • Philosophy
  • Political Science
  • Religion
  • Film and Photography
  • Psychology
  • Anthropology

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare (Brown)

julius caesar

Julius Caesar, or The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, is a history play first performed in 1599. It is one of four masterpieces written by William Shakespeare. It is based on true events from Roman history. The play deals with Brutus’ moral dilemma as he joins the conspiracy to murder Julius Caesar to prevent him from becoming a dictator (Shakespeare, 2020). The work focuses on various themes such as friendship, patriotism, and honor.

It is commonly assigned in the following courses/subjects (in order of appearances in various syllabi):

  • History
  • Anthropology
  • Classics
  • English Literature
  • Film and Photography

Books Read in Ivy League Schools vs. Other Universities

As shown in the previous section, A Writer’s Reference was required by most courses in various colleges and universities across the U.S. It is followed by The Elements of Style with around 9,300 appearances and A Pocket Style Manual with over 6,400. The rest of the top 10 books are a mix of science, mathematics, literature, social sciences, and general reference books. This reflects the diversity of various courses and topics covered by HEIs in the U.S.

On the other hand, a survey of syllabi among Ivy League schools shows a slightly different set of readings.

Source: The Open Syllabus Project, 2020

The two lists have three works in common: Republic, The Communist Manifesto, and Nicomachean Ethics. However, aside from Peter Wolt’s work, which accounts for the science courses in Columbia University, the top 10 required readings in Ivy League schools skew heavily towards sociology, philosophy, and political science. It appears that these schools spend a significant amount of time towards thought and political philosophy in their academic training.

About the Open Syllabus Project

The Open Syllabus Project is a collection of millions of syllabi with the aim to support novel teaching and learning applications (The American Assembly, 2020). Its purpose is to help presses develop books, libraries manage their collections, and educators develop classes. Additionally, it helps students and lifelong learners in exploring topics and fields.

Currently, the OSP collected over nine million syllabi in English from 140 countries. It is powered by machine learning and sophisticated algorithms to extract metadata such as fields, citations, dates, and more. This information is freely available in the Syllabus Explorer.

The database includes information from various courses and classes over the last 15 years. The team behind OSP aims to reveal the “intellectual judgment embedded” in the list of readings and books college students are required to read (Ingraham, 2019).

The project was founded at The American Assembly, a public policy institute with ties to Columbia University.

A quick look at the Syllabus Explorer shows some of the most popular readings across all U.S. colleges. At the top of the list is A Writer’s Reference by Diana Hacker, which appeared in more than 10,254 syllabi in contrast to the top required readings among Ivy League schools in the previous graph.

Source: The Open Syllabus Project, 2020

Benefits of Required Readings to College Students

Aside from the center of discussion points, books provide numerous benefits to college students. Regardless of the topic or themes, it allows students to hone their skills in the following ways:

  1. Diversify knowledge base – Literary works outside students’ focus of study introduces them to new concepts, ideas, and information. Complex topics are presented from various point-of-views through different books. Furthermore, students have the opportunity to connect their focus of study to other subjects, thereby creating a more holistic learning experience.
  2. Improve critical thinking – Required readings are often assigned not only for students to consume but to critique. In different types of writing themes or subject matter, students are encouraged to analyze various aspects of the literary work. As such, they get to practice their critical thinking, which is valuable in any field of study. It also helps them improve their articulation, evaluation, and analysis of complex concepts and ideas.
  3. Expand vocabulary – Reading exposes students to new words, phrases, and expressions. Through the books and similar materials, necessary contexts are highlighted, expanding the students’ vocabulary more effectively. In addition, through reading, you become acquainted with imagery definition, literature that provides deeper and richer reading experiences.

These are just some of the benefits of reading books. Do not mistake reading lists as only beneficial to students taking a bachelor’s or master’s degree in history, philosophy, or the humanities. Those who regularly read outside their required assignments enjoy more advantages such as enhanced focus, a better grasp of grammar, and exploration of new subject matters.

 

References:

  1. Aristotle, & Beresford, A. (2020). Nicomachean Ethics. UK: Penguin Books. Google Books
  2. Fredericks, A. D. (2005). The Complete Idiot’s Guide to: Success as a Teacher. New York, NY: Alpha. Google Books
  3. Hobbes, T. (2020). Leviathan. New York: W.W. Norton. Google Books
  4. Huntington, S. P. (2014). The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. London: Penguin. Google Books
  5. Ingraham, C. (2019, April 29). What Ivy League students are reading that you aren’t. The Washington Post.
  6. King, M. L. (2001). Letter from the Birmingham Jail. Tempe, AZ: Scholargy. Google Books
  7. Plato, Emlyn-Jones, C., & Preddy, W. (2013). Republic. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Google Books
  8. Shakespeare, W. (2020). Julius Caesar. S.l.: Open Road Media. Google Books
  9. Sophocles, & Dawe, R. D. (2006). Oedipus Rex. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Google Books
  10. Stock, J. H., & Watson, M. W. (2020). Introduction to Econometrics. Harlow, England: Pearson. Google Books
  11. The American Assembly. (2020, September 24). About Open Syllabus. The Open Syllabus Project.
  12. Veriava, F. (2020, May 18). Why textbooks are a crucial part of every child’s learning journey. The Conversation.

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