most popular university books
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The list of books most assigned in colleges and universities is a peek into the future.

Below are the titles with the highest frequencies, drawn from more than six million syllabi from courses around the globe, sourced by the Open Syllabus Project.

No Titles Appearances Score
1 The Elements of Style by William Strunk 11,472 100
2 A Writer’s Reference by Diana Hacker 11,099 100
3 Calculus by James Stewart 8,024 100
4 Human Anatomy and Physiology by Elaine Nicpon Marieb 7,105 100
5 Republic by Plato 7,088 100
6 The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx 7,057 100
7 A Pocket Style Manual by Diana Hacker 6,976 100
8 Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley 6,710 100
9 Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle 6,591 100
10 Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes 6,052 100
11 They Say/I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing by Cathy
Birkenstein, Gerald Graff
5,903 100
12 Orientalism by Edward W. Said 5,792 100
13 The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli 5,230 100
14 Doing Your Research Project: A Guide for First-Time Researchers in Education and Social Science by Judith Bell 5,214 100
15 The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer 5,112 100
16 Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad 5,086 100
17 Letter From the Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King 4,973 99
18 Meditations on First Philosophy by René Descartes 4,893 99
19 Paradise Lost by John Milton 4,745 99
20 Utilitarianism by John Stuart Mill 4,718 99

This massive trove of empirical data, made possible by the Public Policy Center at Columbia University, reveal the knowledge and facts that will drive the leaders of the future.

David McClure, a graduate student at the MIT Media Lab who’s helping to build the Open Syllabus Project, explains to EdSurge how this was done:

“Basically, we just go out on the public web, get these documents, and then each kind of represents one professor’s little view onto how to teach something, what matters, what’s important, what’s the sequence between the different readings, how they relate to each other.

“In the past, we encountered these documents in a one-off basis as students, but now we have this huge sea of about six million of them and it just makes it possible to start to analytically try to understand the whole teaching and learning system all at once.”

There are several trends to observe, made possible by the search tools and visualisations the Project provides.

The most-read title is The Elements of Style by William Strunk. Composed in 1918, published in 1920, this style manual gives practical advice on how to improve writing skills with an emphasis on a plain English style. There are eight “elementary rules of usage”, ten “elementary principles of composition”, “a few matters of form”, a list of 49 “words and expressions commonly misused”, and a list of 57 “words often misspelled”.

Similarly, the second most-read book is another manual to help with academic writing. A Writer’s Reference by Diana Hacker is described as “the most widely adopted college handbook ever published”. International students would do well getting the newer versions where content has been varied to serve a wider range of multilingual students.

The appearance of these titles at the top of the list is unsurprising given the importance of academic writing in higher education, so much so that there is a healthy underworld of ghostwriters and essay mills offerinh to help students skip the difficulty of writing them themselves.

The next two titles – Calculus by James Stewart and Human Anatomy and Physiology by Elaine Nicpon Marieb – won’t raise too many eyebrows. Both are politically neutral, unlike The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx in sixth place.

While this may feed into the assumption of today’s college students as left-wing communists, a deeper look into the data proves otherwise: conservative economic thought outnumbers socialist economics.

university reading lists syllabus

Karl Marx’s magnum opus isn’t the dominant economic school of thought taught in today’s universities. Source: Bulent Kilic/AFP

The most-taught economics textbooks, written by Greg Mankiw, hold four out of the top six spots on economics syllabi. Mankiw is an American macroeconomist currently teaching at Harvard University, who is best known in academia for his work on New Keynesian economics.

What’s more notable about Marx’s book isn’t that it’s turning future economists toward a socialist utopia. Rather, it stands out for being widely assigned across many fields, including history, political science, sociology and English literature instead of economics, according to Project Director and Vice President of the Public Policy Institute at Columbia University, Joe Karaganis.

“That’s a very unusual characteristic for a text. In most fields, most texts are assigned in one field or two maybe,” he told EdSurge.

Literary canons are nearly non-existent now, too. After the canon wars in the 80s and 90s, Karaganis noted that no new, diverse canon has been created, but it is now usual for professors to choose new books for their students to read.

“It seems likely that the idea of a canon itself was weakened,” he said, as reported by FastCompany. “There’s very little sign of dominant new literature titles from the past 10 to 15 years.”

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