Here’s what students at Harvard and MIT are required to read

Data from five Mass. schools shows the variety of books college students are most often assigned.

It’s no question that college comes with a lot of required reading, but which books exactly are all those students spending their time on?

The Open Syllabus Project, which collects over one million syllabi from English-language universities, released its data on what many colleges make their students read. The Project has been collecting this info for the past 15 years and includes data for how often each text appeared on syllabi in that time period.

Overall, humanities dominate the reading lists, with titles like Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Ethics making appearances from multiple universities. The reading lists are curated from what’s available publicly on college websites, but Joe Karaganis, project director, told Quartz that with the database now open, he hopes more institutions get involved, and that he aims to triple the number of syllabi the Project uses by the end of 2016.


Out of 100,000 texts that the Project has data on from colleges in the United States, the top three titles are basic books: The Elements of Style, a writing style guide originally published in 1920; Republic, Plato’s Socratic dialogue; and Biology by Neil Campbell.

In Massachusetts, the Project has data from five universities: Harvard, MIT, Brandeis University, Boston College, and University of Massachusetts Amherst. See what students are reading at these schools compared to the average top texts across the country:

At Harvard, the number one required reading is not a lengthy textbook, but rather a wordy letter: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. Harvard students also go beyond the regular philosophy reading with a text comparing Aristotle and Homer Simpson:


MIT offers the most technical texts of the bunch, understandably, with not one, but two top books on macroeconomics. But students there balance out that required reading with a book about the Japanese language:

The Second Shift, a social sciences book about working parents, tops Brandeis students’ list. They’re also assigned the most religious texts, it seems:

At Boston College, the ‘clash of civilizations’ plays out in their required reading — both literally, as Samuel P. Huntington’s book on how cultural and religious ideologies are the primary source of conflict comes in at number eight, and figuratively, as Freedom of Speech in the United States and The Communist Manifesto make the top three:


The University of Massachusetts Amherst mayhave the most “traditional’’ required reading, according to the Project’s broad trends. Classic Greek texts bookend their top 10, but students get to lighten that load with Grimm’s Fairy Tales:

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