Nickel and Dimed at UNC

by Jon Mandle on July 11, 2003

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports (subscription required) that “several Republican state legislators and incoming students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill” are upset by the book chosen for the university’s summer reading program. This is the same program for first-year and transfer students that caused controversy last year when it selected a book on Islam.

This time it’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, by Barbara Ehrenreich. It was selected, says the university’s interim vice chancellor Dean L. Bresciani, with the idea that it “would be a relatively tame selection.” Alas,

“I am offended because I am a Christian and she [Ms. Ehrenreich] is an atheist,” said [State Senator] Mr. Allran, who has not read the entire book but disagrees with what he has read. “I don’t like the disparaging remarks made about Jesus. If I was there, I would sue the school for religious discrimination, and, in fact, I think someone needs to.”

Just to be clear: he doesn’t like the disparaging remarks made about Jesus, but he is offended because Ehrenreich is an atheist. And exactly who is guilty of religious discrimination?



Dan Hardie 07.11.03 at 4:12 pm

This State Senator is clearly a bigot and a fool. One further point: ‘the book chosen for the university’s summer reading program’?
The *book*- singular?

Do they get extra credit if they read it without moving their lips?


dsquared 07.11.03 at 4:33 pm

To be fair, I would say that the Ehenreich book is a pretty provocative choice. Which isn’t a bad thing, far from it, but the Dean can hardly say he didn’t expect this kind of trouble.


Eszter 07.11.03 at 4:53 pm

I posted on required summer books last year:

Both Smith College and Princeton (at least one of its programs) asked incoming first-years to read Nickel and Dimed last summer. I don’t recall and controversy at either.


Jon 07.11.03 at 5:19 pm

There was a further quote from the VP:

“I don’t think we were looking for controversial topics,” said Mr. Bresciani, who was surprised by the reaction Ms. Ehrenreich’s book provoked. “We were looking for a topic that would provide a basis for discussion.”


Martin 07.11.03 at 6:35 pm

Why don’t they just give up and assign the Bible (as literature, of course, it’s a state school). Plenty of topics for dicussion, foundational for lots of college subjects, and, quite seriously, something that should be part of a liberal education.


Jeremy Osner 07.11.03 at 7:12 pm

Agreed about the bible, though I would tend to think some selection therefrom would make a more appropriate summer reading assignment. Perhaps the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles? — personal faves and I think would be less susceptible to evangelical sillinesses than (say) Pentateuch or Gospels.


Internet Ronin 07.11.03 at 7:19 pm

Reminds me of the recommended reading list I received when I went to college. Among them were:

The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon
The Palestinians by Fawaz Turki
The Bhagavad-Gita
Fanshen by William Hinton

(There were two more along the same lines – one on Latin America, I’m sure, but I can’t recall them at the moment. I’ll undoubtedly remember the other two as soon as I post this.)

The seminar to discuss these books, and the common thread, social change in the third world, was led by a defrocked priest.

Those who don’t like UNC’s choices will survive, and the students will learn something (whether they agree with Ehenreich or not). I did.


Nick 07.11.03 at 8:34 pm

I’m actually going to go at this from a different bent, because I think Nick & Dimed is a terrible choice for a summer reading list (especially a list with only one book), but I also think that most of the people who are complaining about it don’t know what they’re talking about.

The general problem people have with the book is that is has a readily obvious modern-day-liberal bent. Be it Ehrenreich’s atheism or her hatred of capitalist pig-dogs, the book has a plain political message. The people who are complaining about this almost certainly would *not* be complaining if the reading list consisted exclusively of Ann Coulter’s latest schlock. In that case, the modern-day-liberals, would of course throw a fit, but that’s the way things are in the world.

At any rate, my problem isn’t the political aim of the book per se (although I admittedly don’t care for Ehrenreich’s point of view), my problem is the fact that it’s not a very good book. If they wanted a modern-day-liberal book, surely there’s something better than her poppish trash; she even admits in the intro to the book that her “experiment” was quite unscientific and that it proved nothing in the end. Given that even the author believes that the book proves nothing, I can’t imagine why this would be assigned reading as such.

Side note: Ehrenreich’s descriptions of the hell that is food service and retail (esp the Wal-Mart chapter) make the book highly entertaining and quite readable. Even though I don’t agree with her politically, I think we’ve all had “that one manager” who seemed to think that being in charge of a mall store (or whatever) made him somehow equivalent to a god.

I don’t think that this book should have been assigned alone. If they’re going to assign a book with an obvious political bent, then they should try to assign something that gives the opposite view as well. I didn’t have a problem reading Marx for my (mandatory) World Cultures class because we read Nietzsche as well; Lao Tzu and Confucius, Plato and Aristotle, you get the idea. But reading Marx or Nietzsche alone (in a mandatory class about *World* cultures) would have quite rankled me; the idea of an education is to help you to better form your ideas, not to force feed you a given set of them.

The fact that UNC is giving students only one point of view – and a highly biased one, at that – is the issue here, not Ehrenreich’s book in partiuclar.


Jeremy Osner 07.11.03 at 9:37 pm

How are Marx and Nietzsche polar opposites in the same way that Lao and Confucius are? I would have thought it was Marx and Smith. I mean Marx and Nietzsche are certainly not particularly compatible, but it would not have been my immediate “of course” pick for contrast.


back40 07.11.03 at 10:41 pm

Well said, Nick. That’s the core of a post that would fit what Tim Dunlop seemed to advocate in his ‘public intellectual’ essay on blogging. You are interested, have a bias, but actually make debatable points rather than express “half-formed convictions based on random impressions and unexamined assumptions”.


fontana labs 07.11.03 at 11:00 pm

One thing I like about the choice is that it will tell students a little bit of what it’s like to live on minimum wage. No, it’s not social science, but it’s something people starting at Princeton or UNC should know, if they don’t already.

The only Christians I remember from the text are the overly pious, pray-out-loud types who are also lousy tippers. If Cornell can do a study on african-american tipping habits, maybe we can get some data on this. Quick, somebody write up a grant proposal.


Nick 07.12.03 at 9:53 am

To respond to the comments about my comment:

Jeremy: Admittedly, I don’t necessarily think Marx and Nietzsche are as opposite as the course would have liked. In fact, I wrote a research paper for a German course that basically proposed that Marx and Nieztsche were the far ends of an Aristotlian golden mean; they agreed on as much as they disagreed. (The paper wasn’t that great, but being two years later, I think I could write a far better one.)

That not withstanding, I mentioned Marx more because the Manifesto was the Obligatory Socialist Part of the Class ™. Smith would have been far better as a counter to Marx; later versions of the class were in fact taught with the Marx/Smith set.

Nonetheless, the Taoism/Confucianism dichotomy, et al still make the point. In a class about Shakespeare, I suppose it would be expected to learn about how great Shakespeare was. I took an Ameican Lit class with a prof who is one of the preeminent scholars on Edgar Allen Poe (Dr Arthur Brown at the University of Evansville), and as expected, we concentrated heavily on Poe. But in a class that is supposed to have a broad view – or on a reading list for all incoming students – a single, heavily biased view just isn’t enough.

Back40: In all honesty, that’s probably the highest compliment I’ve received on innumerable comments/posts.

I am, admittedly, quite sure of my beliefs. I naturally think that if everyone thought the way I did, the world would be a much better place… but it would also be very, very boring. Thus, I try to always be open to new ways of looking at things. I like to pretend I’m perfect (ask my girlfriend, heh), but of course, there’s always a lot more to learn. A closed mind is the closest approximation to hell I can think of.

Also, if you could post here (or email me) a link to the Tim Dunlop essay you refer to, it would be greatly appreciated. I’m kind of curious to see the full paper. Thanks!


Nick 07.12.03 at 10:05 am

As for the Christians mentioned in the book, I only remember the same ones Fontana refers to. What Ehrenreich doesn’t note is that there are a lot of Protestant groups (such as Pentecostals) that don’t tip because they give 10-15% to God, thus absolving them of the need to tip in this life.

I’m sure I’ve oversimplified the religion and reasoning here (so anyone who knows more can feel free to correct me), but a couple years in the restaurant business (as I continue to make my way through school) have alerted me to certain truisms as such.

Side note: It’s generally very difficult to tell who will tip well and who won’t, which generally means everyone gets good service, which makes it quite disappointing when you bust your rear for a table and they leave you a Jack Chick tract for a tip. :-P


Lawrence Krubner 07.12.03 at 9:53 pm

North Carolina is the most progressive of all the Southern states but it is torn in a schizoid manner. The Senate election contest of 1990 summed up the matter well: every city of 40,000 or more went for Harvey Gant, but the rural countryside was solid for Jesse Helms. Things haven’t changed much. Throughout North Carlolina you have islands of shocking moderness of which Chapel Hill/Research Triangle Park is perhaps the best example.

I lived in Chapel Hill for 4 years and had many students as friends (I was about their age at the time). Chapel Hill, and the university, are both remarkable for their vitality. The surrounding countryside contains pockets of poverty that you would not think possible in a modern industrial society.

For those of you in Britian and elsewhere:

I had a roommate for awhile from India who was getting his Ph.d in bio research. He remarked to me at one point: “You know, it’s interesting, while I was in India I’d never heard of UNC. It has no international reputation at all. But once you get here in the States, you find out that it is really considered quite an important school.”


Jason McCullough 07.13.03 at 12:49 am

“Side note: Ehrenreich’s descriptions of the hell that is food service and retail (esp the Wal-Mart chapter) make the book highly entertaining and quite readable.”

I think the above is a perfectly valid reason to write a book, or assign its reading, even if its not “scientific.”


Fontana Labs 07.13.03 at 11:01 pm

Wait– tithing is supposed to supplant tipping? That can’t be right. (By which I mean that it’s terrible, not that it’s false.) I thought tithing was in the category of charitable contribution, which is just what tipping *isn’t*, since servers’ wages are adjusted to account for the expected extra. “I’m sorry–what? I have to pay for this? No, there’s been some mistake. You see, I tithe, so it’s like I paid for it already.”


Thlayli 07.14.03 at 5:03 am

“You know, it’s interesting, while I was in India I’d never heard of UNC. It has no international reputation at all. But once you get here in the States, you find out that it is really considered quite an important school.”

Four words: Dean Smith, Michael Jordan.


Jurjen 07.14.03 at 11:05 am

Ah, there’s the rub, fontana labs; the Lord taketh the tithes and redistributeth them to the needy wait and retail staff. But not, of course, to the atheists among them, which is why Ehrenreich didn’t get a cut. *forbidden smiley*

You know, my wife read that book (and I think I ought to as well, but I’m on a former Yugoslavia binge lately) and worked her way through college doing retail jobs; she says, based on her experience, it’s all pretty plausible. So it’s not “science”; call it “investigative journalism” instead (Gunther Walraff did something similar with Ganz Unten fifteen or twenty years ago). But who says the scientific value needs to be in the book itself? I assume some kind of assessment should follow, and if the students correctly identify it as anecdotal evidence, which may or may not be correct, their education has been furthered.


Ruth Feingold 07.14.03 at 3:04 pm

Just a quick note, on a point many people seem curious about:

UNC didn’t assign this book for summer reading, as in “this is what you should spend your summer reading.” The idea is to take ONE book and make sure every new student has read it by the begininning of Orientation, so that discussions about it — both formal and informal — can be part of O-week. The book’s supposed to serve as a source for talking points, as a connection between former strangers who are now going to be part of the same intellectual community, and as a platform for Orientation leaders to show new students how texts are supposed to be talked about in college classes.

So no, you can’t manage to require multiple authors in order to have different points of view for this exercise; ideally, the readers can provide at least some differences in their takes on the chosen book. And yes, it’s worth assigning the book even it doesn’t “prove anything”: among other things, one of the primary points I try to teach my students is that I’m having them read books not to get facts, but to get ideas. And yes, the VP who wants discussion without controversy sounds pretty silly. And yes, the Senator who equates reading an idea he doesn’t like with “discrimination” is even sillier.


Con Tendem 07.14.03 at 9:29 pm

I was about to jump in when ruth beat me to it. This is not a class, or a list of recommended reading. It is, typically, a short book everyone incoming is required to read so that a short seminar of a couple of hours can be spent dicussing it and getting to “know one another”. Choosing a polarizing book is actually, I think, a good choice since that helps to get discussions going.
I think the controversy over this, and other, programs of this kind are overblown. Hundreds, if not thousands, of schools assign these and so one or two a year is not a high ratio. Moreoever, this is not exactly a year-long investigative study. Some editor thought asking a bunch of low-level functionaries about this book would be fun. You can bet the politicians who said that they neve rread the book AND have no comment are not featured in the story. So whoever decides that any publicity is good gets a choice quote of “never read it but i am sure it is the spawn of the devil”. Same goes for students, they choose a couple of good soundbites, chop off the rest of the interview and saddle UNC with a controversy.
For the record, my reading selection was “Frankenstein” which could easily generate the same kind of controvesry given enough questions by a reporter.


Charles 07.14.03 at 11:13 pm

Any book that inspires us to passion, one way or the other, is good. In some ways there is no other reason for a book to exist. Passion, expecially intellectual passion (an oxymoron?), is always good.


John Thacker 07.15.03 at 11:48 am

I think it would be extremely interesting if they balanced her (admittedly political) book with a book taking nearly the opposite view. Cox and Alm’s Myths of Rich and Poor certainly is a well-argued, well-research text arguing the opposite view– that, economically, life for poor Americans (the lowest 20%) now is better off than the average person 25 years ago. It takes a very statistical approach, rather than entertaining anecdotes, though.


Don Hosek 08.25.03 at 12:08 pm

We went through this last year with UNC’s summer book as well. I think it has much less to do with the book itself and with political posturing in the state.


John Rynne 08.29.03 at 9:16 pm

Four words: Dean Smith, Michael Jordan

Dean who???. Michael who??? (oh, the guy who makes the running shoes)


Tagore Smith 08.30.03 at 6:24 am

I read this a little while back, but I don’t have a copy at hand. I don’t remember it being particularly anti-christian, for a book written by an atheist- the one big point on which Ehrnereich agree.

The book is tripe though. Ehrenreich has no idea how to be poor, and no interest in learning. The people around her could have told her a few things about getting by, had she recognized that they possessed skills she lacked. That would have required that she acknowledge them as independent actors, though, which would have hurt her thesis.

The problem with assigning this book as summer reading for incoming university students is that it reinforces every prejudice they are likely to have about people just getting by. This is not broadening.

In fact I think the book is a great litmus test- if you take it seriously you don’t understand what being poor in this country is really about.

Comments on this entry are closed.