March 27, 2001

Bestseller Chosen To Be Required Frosh Reading

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Members of the Class of 2005 will receive their first reading assignments before they even arrive on campus.

At a faculty meeting on March 14, Provost Biddy (Carolyn A.) Martin announced that the University will implement a program this summer in which each incoming freshman will receive a free copy of the same book, so that they can read it over the summer and discuss it during Freshman Orientation.

“There is a concern to get Freshmen Orientation off to an academic start,” said Walter Cohen, dean of the Graduate School. He added that he thought the book might help “to build an academic culture” among the freshmen.

“We wanted an intellectually serious book,” Martin said via e-mail.

The book, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Prof. Jared Diamond, physiology, University of California at Los Angeles, will be sent to each student along with a packet of materials to help “frame the whole exercise for the students,” Martin said.

Martin gave the deans of each of the colleges four books to read by their next meeting. In December, they decided on Guns, Germs, and Steel.

“This was clearly the best [book] by a longshot,” said John E. Hopcroft, the J. Silbert Dean of the College of Engineering.

The book was chosen because it covers a broad range of disciplines, from history to linguistics to agriculture.

“It’s not the usual European history,” Diamond said. “In England, the subtitle of the book is ‘A Short History of Everything for the Last 13,000 Years.'”

“It seemed that it could appeal to students in the widest range of circumstances,” Cohen added.

Hopcroft, however, was skeptical about the ability of a single book to appeal to the entire freshman class.

“The students come from such a broad spectrum that I’m not sure that this notion of having a common experience for all of them makes sense,” Hopcroft said.

“I’m not convinced that there’s one book that’s going to appeal to everybody,” he said.

Besides choosing the book for its broad range, the deans also chose it because of its potential to create debate among the freshmen.

“The book really does undermine the assumptions for why Europeans conquered the rest of the world,” Diamond said.

He added that several universities had used his book in similar projects for their freshmen orientations, including Beloit College in Wisconsin.

“It’s not like we’re inventing something here,” Cohen said, noting that a similar program was in place at Stanford University when he was a freshman.

Though the idea is not an original one, its implementation at Cornell flowed recently from the Provost’s office.

“I was the major supporter of an experiment in which we would try it out,” Martin said.

The book is mandatory for all Cornell freshmen. Cohen and Hopcroft said the book was very readable.

“It was clear that the students were engaged by [the book],” said the author in agreement.

Faculty will discuss the book on the second day of orientation at a faculty forum open to students.

On the third day of orientation, students will participate in discussion groups of about 15 students led by a faculty member.

Martin confirmed that she will lead one of the discussions and said that President Hunter R. Rawlings III and several professors emeritus are interested in leading orientation groups as well. Cohen also expressed interest in leading a discussion.

“I think it might be fun,” he said.

Cohen also mentioned that the book may be included in the first week of all freshmen writing seminars in the fall.

“[Associate Dean] Jonathan Monroe, director of the J. S. Knight Writing Program, attended the meeting at which the book was selected,” Martin said. “He