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'Savage' summer reading selected

A selection committee has named "Savage Inequalities," a book documenting the shortcomings of the U.S. educational system, as the required reading for the incoming Class of 2007.

The book, written by Jonathan Kozol, was chosen by a wide margin over Andre Debus's novel, "The House of Sand and Fog."

"The thing I liked most about 'Savage Inequalities' over 'The House of Sand and Fog' was just the way it's written," said Assistant Dean of Students Ryan Lombardi, chair of the summer reading selection committee. "For myself and a lot of the students on the committee and some other folks, it was an eye opener."

The challenge in picking this year's reading, Lombardi said, was finding a book that was compelling for a wide audience. And although around 35 percent of incoming freshmen hail from private high schools--therefore lacking firsthand experience with the book's topic, public education--Lombardi said "Savage Inequalities" boasts a certain universal appeal.

"It does resonate with pretty much everyone who has come through a public school education," he said, "but also anyone who has had a private school education, because he compares and contrasts that."

The book was published in 1991 to generally favorable reviews. Many of America's public school children, Kozol wrote, were suffering greatly from an educational system stacked impossibly against them. Critics frequently noted Kozol's intense writing style. While Time magazine called the book "a searing expose," The New York Times Book Review found it "depressing."

In some ways, the book represents a departure from the inaugural summer reading, last year's "The Palace Thief" by Ethan Kanin. "Savage Inequalities" is a full-length, non-fiction book, while "The Palace Thief" is a short story.

Senior Devon MacWilliam, selection committee member and co-chair of the First-Year Advisory Council board, said that despite the lengthier material, she is confident students will do their required reading. "This is a book where if you read the first chapter, you're going to want to read more," she said.

Like "The Palace Thief," "Savage Inequalities" challenges readers to form an educated opinion on a relevant topic, selection committee members said. Dean of Students and Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs Sue Wasiolek added that summer reading books are chosen in large part by their ability to inspire intellectual engagement in students.

"Most significantly, we look for an issue or topic that will appeal to students, that's certainly relevant to the times, that warrants discussion and debate and that just has some real meaning and relevance to life at Duke as well as life beyond," Wasiolek said.

While MacWilliam did not think the summer reading promoted any particular agenda, she acknowledged that the widespread dissemination of the materials plays an important role in shaping campus debate. "Both books do have a social conscience to them. When you read either of the books, it's hard to avoid some moral lessons and social lessons to them," she said.

The FAC-led discussions of the summer reading--which some students called uneven last year--will be revisited this year, with some improvements.

"When we were interviewing FAC [candidates], one thing we took into high consideration... was how we thought that they might lead a book discussion," MacWilliam said.

Lombardi said a host of interactive opportunities to engage with "Savage Inequalities," such as forums and panels on the state of U.S. education, are in the works for the fall. He said the University will try to get Kozol to visit campus, as Kanin did last year, to discuss his work.


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