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The mainstream media in China have reported several times that the most popular college books in the US include "The Communist Manifesto" & "The Republic". I have always thought that is "fake news" until someone published the quoted source here (it is in Chinese). It seems that the data is collected from https://opensyllabus.org/. But who are they OpenSyllabus? Is their data credible?

the most popular college books

the most assigned books

This is from the Washington Post article "What Ivy League students are reading that you aren’t", which used the word "most popular" instead of "most assigned".

I then checked https://opensyllabus.org/. As of today (2022.9.14), "The Communist Manifesto" ranks 4th and ""The Republic" ranks 5th.

I googled these terms and find the top 2 results are:

  1. WHAT ARE THE MOST POPULAR COLLEGE BOOKS IN THE US?
  2. THE MOST-POPULAR COLLEGE BOOKS

They all said their data was from https://opensyllabus.org so the result is similar. But is is really the case that "The Communist Manifesto" and "The Republic" are among the most frequently assigned college books?

I explain why I have doubts about the claim:

  1. For "The Communist Manifesto" it is obvious. And I have heard from many sources (although I can't verify that either) that nobody in the "west" takes this book seriously, only our Chinese or the Communist Party to be exact take it seriously. Actually we don't take this book seriously too.

  2. For Plato's Republic, I would feel more real if professors in US assign the books from Adam Smith or Friedrich Hayek or any modern political books.

  3. I know they are the assigned books and it does NOT imply anyone agrees with the content (of course!). But my question is why would professors assign these books? I got my entire education in China and I know little about the college education in US or the English world, so if the answer is obvious to you maybe not be obvious to me. That's one of reasons I asked the question. But I really don't see the obvious reason here. Surely Communist Manifesto was an extremely influential document but isn't there more influential document, especially in the west world the college students need to learn ?

The bottom line is is OpenSyllabus's data credible? If yes, how do we interpret its data? The very first comment I got from xyldke show that OpenSyllabus has explained Communist Manifesto’s High Rank.

I have got many replies for Communist Manifesto, but can someone talk about Republic? If it is indeed the case and if I were to guess the reason I would say it is because Martin Luther King said The Republic is the one book he would have taken to a deserted island, alongside the Bible.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tim
    Commented Sep 15, 2022 at 5:05
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    @Qiulang so your final question is: "Why are these two books commonly assigned to college students?" In that case, that's probably not in scope for this stack. The other questions about "Is OpenSyllabus credible?" and "Are these books commonly assigned?" are good.
    – justhalf
    Commented Sep 15, 2022 at 7:46
  • Could you edit your question to remove the parts about why the books are assigned. These questions can not be answered by applying skepticism and are therefore not on-topic for Skeptics.SE. As other people have pointed out you may ask about the academic importance of certain works on academia.se or philosophy.se. Check out their help centers before asking to make sure your question is on topic.
    – xyldke
    Commented Sep 16, 2022 at 6:42
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    Also, please do not interpret that to say that your question is bad. I (and apparently many other users of this site) think your question about the statistics is very valuable and certainly not a waste of time!
    – xyldke
    Commented Sep 16, 2022 at 6:43
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    A problem with this question is "most popular" is being defined as "used in most courses". I noticed that on the list Stewart's "Calclulus" book is #6. This book is near ubiquitous in undergrad calculus programs and I would wager a plurality of engineering college students have used this book. But you will never see this book referenced or used outside of introductory calculus courses, and these courses at large universities could be over 1000 students. Both which count heavily against it using a definition of "popular" which counts courses and not students.
    – Chuu
    Commented Sep 16, 2022 at 13:24

3 Answers 3

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Source of Statistics

The methodology behind the numbers is discussed on Open Syllabus' about page.

A few key points:

  • The data doesn't cover all courses in the US. They estimate their coverage at around 5 to 6 percent.
  • The data is not manually entered in a consistent format. It is scraped from documents using automated tools trained with machine learning.
  • The data only covers a pre-defined list of known titles. Some titles may be missed because they are not in the list; others may be merged or split incorrectly.

They claim that despite these limitations,, their data set is large and accurate enough to provide useful insight.

Is the claim true?

Firstly, the word "popular" is somewhat misleading; as the subtitle on the quoted graphic shows, these are frequently assigned texts. They are "popular" in a technical sense, but not in the colloquial sense of "people choose and enjoy them".

However, rewording to a less leading question:

Do the most commonly assigned college books in the US include "The Communist Manifesto" & "The Republic"?

The answer appears to be "yes": they appear at positions 4 and 5 in the overall list, according to the data sampled. Even allowing for errors in the data set, it is likely to be more assigned than many other works.

Is it surprising?

The sense of surprise comes from misinterpreting the ranking as implying some kind of "importance" or "merit", rather than looking at what "frequency" actually means in this context.

The Open Syllabus blog has an article discussing the ranking of the Communist Manifesto. It points out several reasons it ranks highly, which probably apply to several of the top ranked titles:

  • It is assigned in multiple different subjects. Texts that rank higher in individual subjects will probably be more specific to that particular topic, so rank lower across the full data set.
  • It is assigned to study its influence, as well as its ideas. Notably, it is not one of the most frequently assigned texts in Economics, but it is in History and Sociology. It is also ranked fairly high in English, presumably as an example of a particular type of writing, and to understand its influence on other texts.
  • It is a short text which can be taught in its entirety, rather than excerpted from.
  • It is a single work with clear authorship, so unambiguously appears on the lists the data is based on.

It is also worth pointing out that the absolute frequency of these books is very low: there are 11234 occurrences of The Communist Manifesto and 9883 of The Republic, out of 4.3 million analysed syllabi in the US alone. That means 99 percent of courses do not list either of these books as required reading

They also represent 2 out of nearly 5 million titles which appear at least once in the data set. Individual teachers may rank any of those 5 million as "important", but they don't agree enough for them to rank highly when aggregated across all courses.

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    "It is probably assigned to study its influence, rather than its ideas": in some cases it is surely assigned to study the ideas for the purpose of exposing them as misguided. I mean, Copernicus is there, but most professors assigning Copernicus are probably pointing out to their students that circular orbits with epicycles is not the best way to model the solar system.
    – phoog
    Commented Sep 14, 2022 at 11:32
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    @IMSoP the Communist Manifesto is very much about history. Its first sentence is "the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles." Whether it is useful as an academic analysis of history is of course another matter. By "misguided" I meant simply that surely some of the professors assigning it believe that communism was wrong -- this is the US we're talking about here -- so they are assigning it for the purpose of demonstrating what was wrong about it.
    – phoog
    Commented Sep 14, 2022 at 11:54
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    @phoog The communist manifesto relevant from a historic point of view because of how relevant it was to the movements which it inspired. This includes the communist movement in the East (which created a global political divide that dominated the post-WW2 era and is still visible today) and the workers rights movement in the West (that still shows its influence on the social democracy systems in most parts of Europe, and to a lesser extend in North-America, although few US politicians would like to admit that).
    – Philipp
    Commented Sep 14, 2022 at 12:02
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    Please can everybody stop using this comment section to discuss the merits of individual books. The statistics do not say anything about books being interesting, useful, important, or any other judgement; they also do not say anything about individual professors choosing one title over another. Nor is this the right forum to discuss your opinion of any of the books. Comments should be about how to improve this answer within the context of this site, which is about challenging a claim you're skeptical of. Being slightly surprised is not the same as being skeptical.
    – IMSoP
    Commented Sep 15, 2022 at 8:15
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tim
    Commented Sep 19, 2022 at 9:20
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The data looks like a thin slice

Suppose you take a paper-thin slice of an apple, orange, or similar fruit. By chance, you might discover seeds or pulp. If you take an unfortunate slice, you may drastically overestimate the amount of seeds in the overall fruit. You might find patterns in the slice which are related to your choice of slice and not the overall geometry of the fruit, like moiré patterns.

Anecdotally, I grew up and went to university in Oregon, and of everything on the list, I was only assigned "Frankenstein". I didn't know about "Things Fall Apart" until today. While I know about the existence of many of the books on the list, I don't recall many of my peers being assigned these books. This doesn't invalidate the dataset, but it suggests that it is a high-dimensional space that we are examining.

To quote IMSoP's excellent answer:

The data doesn't cover all courses in the US. They estimate their coverage at around 5 to 6 percent. … [The data] is scraped from documents using automated tools trained with machine learning.

But automated tools suffer from streetlight bias because they can only recognize data that they were structurally designed to ingest. "Machine learning" or other statistical approaches do not change this.

This is sufficient to resolve the entire situation, at least for me. Because the dataset is so small compared to the space being studied, and the tools used to gather it are known to suffer structural biases, it should not be considered a representative sample. Thus, we should not draw conclusions from it.

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    Saying that the data is too small a slice, and then justifying that criticism based on anecdotes of your own experience seems almost comical - there's no smaller slice than 1. You don't even mention what subjects you studied - I'm sure I've never heard of most textbooks on a Geography or Mechanical Engineering course, because I didn't study those subjects, nor inspect the bookshelves and library records of anyone who did.
    – IMSoP
    Commented Sep 18, 2022 at 18:36
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    As for "resolving the situation", there doesn't appear to be any situation to resolve: the claim is probably true, and people are surprised because they're wildly over-interpreting it.
    – IMSoP
    Commented Sep 18, 2022 at 18:40
  • @IMSoP: No worries. It's okay if I didn't convince you. I had to read "Frankenstein", regardless of whether I studied music (at first) or computer science (later on), because Oregon University System schools had core scholastic requirements and many different majors all had to take the same English literature course. We all used the same on-campus bookstore; we all saw the same shelves. For what it's worth, all I dispute is that "the claim is probably true"; the claim is probably myopic, not true/false.
    – Corbin
    Commented Sep 18, 2022 at 18:42
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No. At least not "at the top 30 U.S. colleges".

https://eab.com/insights/daily-briefing/workplace/the-15-most-assigned-books-at-the-top-30-u-s-colleges/


The 15 most-assigned books at the top 30 U.S. colleges :

  1. Frankenstein, by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
  2. Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer
  3. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  4. Oedipus, by Sophocles
  5. Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad
  6. Paradise Lost, by John Milton
  7. The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James
  8. Beloved, by Toni Morrison
  9. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Ann Jacobs
  10. To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf
  11. Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
  12. The Odyssey, by Homer
  13. Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf
  14. Hamlet, by William Shakespeare
  15. Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the most-assigned piece of literature at elite universities, Thu-Huong Ha writes for Quartz.

To find the most commonly assigned texts, Ha consulted the Open Syllabus Project, which features a ranking of texts assigned most often in college and university courses, based on one million curricula. Ha looked at curricula labeled “English,” “Languages and Literature,” and “Classics” at the top 30 U.S. colleges, as ranked by the U.S. News and World Report in 2018.

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    Ha looked at curricula labeled “English,” “Languages and Literature,” and “Classics” - This is an answer to a different question. The original claim talks about all college courses and not just a small subset of subjects. You may use this answer to talk about most commonly assigned literature, as the original source does, but it is not data on the most assigned college books (which include non-literary works).
    – xyldke
    Commented Sep 16, 2022 at 13:31
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    Also note that this is quoting the same dataset; it's simply applying a few somewhat arbitrary filters to tell a different story.
    – IMSoP
    Commented Sep 18, 2022 at 18:38

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