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.
|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
|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.
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.”