09/17/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Newspapers, Not Books, Are the Key to Engaging Budding College Students

Albert Camus' The Plague was my summer reading before I started college. I recall bringing the book along with me to the beach that summer, expecting that between dips in the ocean I'd squeeze in a chapter here and there.

As you can imagine, the summer sped by and soon i found myself arriving on campus for the first time, not having yet finished my first assigned reading. The novel, as I'd pretty much come to expect from all assigned readings, just didn't do it for me. Melville, Dickens, Chaucer and many others are renowned and appreciated, but likely not by the teenage set.

Little did I realize then that the professors who had selected Camus' book picked it because it was supposed to reach their college-aged audience. This book, I recall, didn't resonate with me. It was about disease in France, combining two topics that I felt didn't relate to me at all. I failed to grasp the larger issues contained within the novel dealing with the human condition and varying reactions to a scare. I must have deliberately missed these points since this was a group of students affected by the events of 9/11 and who had lots to say about scare tactics and cautionary living.

Looking at it now, from an academic standpoint, it was the perfect book to assign. The staff designed programs and assignments to incorporate the novel and its themes into teachings. On the eve of classes beginning, they held a symposium on campus where students could meet and share their thoughts on the work. It was a way to bring people together. Since I hadn't completed the book, I chose not to attend. As the semester grew on, we had plenty of opportunities to write papers comparing Camus' novel to other works we'd tackled in English Composition 101. I went for the other topic option every time.

If youth is wasted on the young, the same can be said for some of the great works of literature. It would be surprising, for instance, to find someone who identified with The Great Gatsby who didn't have prior knowledge of or experience with wealth and elitism. I struggled through books, lectures and courses that dealt with eras or events I had a hard time implanting myself into. It's during college that I, and probably many like me, began to discover that what you don't automatically or immediately relate to may wind up providing some meaningful educational and emotional lessons.

I simply wasn't ready for The Plague in the summer leading up to college. Some students may have found themselves more impressed by it than I was. They may have also spotted themes and messages beneath the surface of allegories by John Milton and Edmund Spenser. For me, however, reading then was largely akin to suffering through an ordeal. It was a chore. Class discussion was mostly about commiserating with my fellow classmates over our class syllabus and wondering what it takes to be heralded with "The Classics."

It wasn't until my second reading of Paradise Lost in college that I was ready to debate the merits and responsibility of having free will in the world. No matter who or when the great works are read the story remains the same. The one caveat is that you must be ready ahead of time to look for the deeper meaning.

It's not surprising to me that some colleges have done away with the traditional assigned summer reading in favor of having their students prepare their minds in other ways to the ideas and discussions they'll encounter in the ensuing years. The acts of reading the newspaper and participating in conversation about current affairs are worth more to young college students than interpreting foreign works, no matter their messages. What's preeminently important is for them to learn to respect others' opinions and to be involved in a healthy exchange of ideas. There will be plenty of time later to read and decipher novels.

Learning about what's going on in the world, and how others are impacted, sounds like perfect preparation for college. Moreover, the corresponding online forums that colleges advocate can provide a hands-on way to teach respect for others online as well. Internet discussion between strangers is a pastime for these students who don't know a time before the Internet's dominion. We're seeing lesson plans changing to welcome respectful online chatter. Once that's been established, you'll find stronger and healthier communication in classrooms and around campuses. That's always been what universities sought after for their incoming freshmen, only now students are being offered to meet each other and engage with each other over topics that matter to them.