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Great Books, Black College Style

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Last week, I visited Prairie View A&M University (PVAMU), which is located about an hour outside of Houston in Prairie View, Texas -- a rural area with ample farmland. The historically Black university is part of the Texas A&M System. During the visit, I had the pleasure of listening to its president, George C. Wright, discuss student success and how the institution works with low-income students of color to help them achieve their dreams. Wright is an interesting man -- spirited, excited about education, and an academic at heart. He is a historian by training and seems to love talking about history and teaching students about history.

While on campus, I discovered a small pamphlet that Wright gives to students and I found it wonderfully fascinating and meaningful. Many colleges and universities across the nation have Great Books curricula, but unfortunately, all too often, these curricula are not inclusive and merely showcase Western thinkers and mainly men. At PVAMU, Wright has put together a "Recommended Reading List" that is basically his idea of a Great Books curriculum. Wright's list includes books such as: Nelson Mandela's Long Walk to Freedom, Sandra Cisneros's A House on Mango Street, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mocking Bird, Darlene Clark Hine's Black Women in America, Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, Stephen Jay Gould's The Mismeasure of Man, Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat, Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma, Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, and James Weldon Johnson's Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man. The list is diverse and also includes books on reading and writing.

Although I have read all but a few of the books on Wright's list, I read them as an adult and not while in college. Unfortunately, my undergraduate institution, even though a liberal arts college, focused on very few of these books. In particular, I was never assigned a book related to African American, Latino, Asian, or Native American history and culture. I missed out. I fear that far too many undergraduate students around the country miss out and only understand life through their own experiences and from their own perspectives. When they enter the job market and are not well read, it is a detriment to their success.

I had a chance to ask Wright about the "Recommended Reading List" while visiting. The first question I asked him was "Why is a recommended reading list important for students and why African American students in particular?" Wright responded, "The list is important because its very presence says to students that learning, in the context of reading, is an important aspect of the university experience. Ideally, a reading list should lead students to read some of the books on their own, outside of class. If they do this, it means that they are extending the educational experience to the rest of their lives. I believe reading is important to all students."

As someone whose entire life and career changed because of one book -- James D. Anderson's The Education of Blacks in the South -- I also wanted to know which books on Wright's list had influenced him most or changed his way of thinking. His response: "Two books were very influential in my life. First, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin is particularly poignant, especially his virtues by which to live. Franklin's book shows the value of having organization and discipline in one's life. Second, Richard Wright's Black Boy, because it gave me a graphic sense of the extent of racism in American society on the Black community and how Blacks often 'accepted' being second class citizens." Black Boy helped me to understand that I must not accept the place in life that society has assigned to me; instead my 'place' is whatever I dream it to be and commit myself to my place becoming." The beauty of Wright's list is that it is so personal, so meaningful. There is a story behind each of his choices.

In this age of increased technology, we often forget what a luxury it is to escape in a book, to dream through a book, and to envision the ideas of an author in our own way. I know for myself, having grown up in a fairly isolated small town in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, books were a way to drift away into other worlds, a way to learn about other lifestyles, and more practically, a way to expand my vocabulary. In the case of PVAMU students, it seems that books are also opening up new worlds, expanding ideas, and rounding out their education no matter what their major or their location in rural, Texas.