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What Ivy League Students Read that you Don't

By Anastasiia Vorobeva
On November 30, 2017

Ivy League required reading lists are heavily concentrated on political philosophy.
Photo By The Washington Post

If you’re one of those lucky kids with wealthy and influential parents or with a sky-high IQ, Ivy League school education is probably an available option. For the rest of us willing to catch up with the Elite of the country and the world, Open Syllabus Project might be an answer.

    The Open Syllabus Project is a website collection with over a million curricula from English-language colleges and universities from all over the world for the past 15 years.

    The group behind the project explains that there is an “intellectual judgment embedded” in the required reading lists for college students. There is a set of the most frequently assigned books in the world and in the U.S. universities because they are seen to be the foundation of good education and “the body of literature that society’s leaders are expected to be familiar with,” says Washington Post.

    Ideally, core books for the formation of leaders should be the same for all schools all over the nation, but there are some differences in choices across top schools.

    The Washington Post compared the most frequently assigned books at higher education institutions and compared them with seven Ivy League schools - Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Cornell, Columbia, U. Penn, and Brown. The differences can be seen in the graph.

    Out of 10 top books assigned in both columns, only four of them match – “The Elements of Style,” “The Republic,” “The Prince and The Leviathan.”

    These two groups of schools seem to have a different idea of what books are most important. For example, Ivy League considers “The Republic” to be the most important book, while other schools emphasize the importance of “The Elements of Style.”

    “Appearing fourth on the list, Marx and Engels’s ‘The Communist Manifesto’ is sure to raise some eyebrows,” writes the Washington Post. “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.”

    Overall, Ivy League’s required reading lists are heavily concentrated on political philosophy and thought. Plato, Hobbes, Machiavelli, and Aristotle overwhelmingly dominate the lists, particularly at the top schools.

    The project discoverer allows you to create a selection based on a subject or school of your choice. Using this tool, it is easy to see what Ivy League expects you to read for a particular field of study.

    For instance, the reading requirements for English classes in both the Ivy League and average schools have some matching books such as “The Canterbury Tales,” “Paradise Lost,” “Frankenstein,” “Heart of Darkness,” and “Hamlet.” There is again a difference in prioritizing those texts. While “Frankenstein” stays on the very bottom on the Ivy League lists, it stays on the top of the lists for the rest of the schools.

    “I feel like that’s really a great opportunity to see what some of the highest accredited English professors view as worthwhile reading,” says James Trent, Concord University student majoring in English and pursuing a teaching career.

    “It sounds like a wonderful starting point for anyone who wants to take reading more seriously. Of course, anything can be read deeply, and a list like that shouldn’t be used to say ‘These are the only things worth reading seriously,’ but it sounds like a great entryway into active reading, which is one of the best character-building hobbies someone can have.”

    It is somewhat entertaining to see that certain states prefer particular books. For instance, New York State, Minnesota, and Georgia prefer Plato’s “The Republic” like Ivy League seems to, while West Virginia favors “A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations” by Kate L. Turabian.

    Among other features, the project allows readers to filter reading requirements by many subjects and colleges.

    “It’s still a dirty dataset,” project director Joe Karaganis told Quartz about the potential for errors from misspelled or non-uniform titles. The project team had to rely on public information on colleges and university websites, which might have been old, and in some ways irrelevant.

    Now that the project is open to the public and has received a certain level of publicity, “Karaganis hopes this will change: As more institutions and academics get involved, the team can start to fill in the gaps and correct mistakes,” Quartz writes.

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