I was thinking of some thought provoking books about America that I read long ago and started wondering if students are these are still encourages to read these.
Is the trilogy "USA," by John Dos Passos, about injustice and the birth pains of organized labor, still suggested reading for high school students? His later publication, "Midcentury", repudiated unions because they had become corrupt.
Is Richard Wright's "Native Son" still relevant to understanding today's ghetto youth?
How about Leon Uris' "Exodus"? Is the novel based on facts or strictly fiction?
What should the electorate read to learn how to recognize when politicians are borrowing effective but sleazy propaganda techniques? They could read George Orwell's 1984 to learn how such as the fictional "Big Brother" use of "newspeak" to manipulate language. They should learn how and why Hitler's big lie technique is effective (spelled out in a few sentences in Mein Kamf) but I wouldn't recognize reading that whole bigotted book just for that.
I realize this is a literature forum, but the Constitution of the United States should be required reading - if not in Civics or American Government classes, then it needs to be incorporated into the literature course. Obviously the first options would be the more appropriate placements for the content and discussion that would follow the reading.
While I don't want a universal required reading list, I do think it's important for students to be exposed--to a greater or lesser degree--to works which have value because they reveal truth about history and the human condition. Someone mentioned John Steinbeck, and I would cite The Grapes of Wrath, specifically. It's the perfect blend of American history and human nature.
I don't think that any generalized required reading should exist. As a teacher, I have to pay attention to texts that will engage my students. The texts that I choose would not peak the interest of other areas given I try to teach ideas that larger areas already grasp. (I teach in a very small rural area.)
Therefore, a required reading list would do one of two things: miss entire audiences given lack of interest or engagement; or fail to speak to ideals which targeted audiences have no interest.
Just my thoughts.
I agree with pohnpei397 that Lies My Teacher Told Me should be required reading. History textbooks are inadequate, and democracy requires a well-informed citizenry if it is not to degrade into mob rule. As for literature, I don't think it's necessary for all students to read a particular set of books, but they do need to read a substantial chunk of the American cannon. Each student should have read at least some of the books others have mentioned. In addition, I think that cannon needs to be expanded to include certain scientific works. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn comes to mind.
I think that Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States is a must read. It details the great history of this country through the eyes of the common man instead of through the eyes of the corrupt politicians who typically steal the spotlight. Zinn had this to say about his book -
"I want young people to understand that ours is a beautiful country, but it has been taken over by men who have no respect for human rights or constitutional liberties. Our people are basically decent and caring, and our highest ideals are expressed in the Declaration of Independence, which says that all of us have an equal right to 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.' The history of our country, I point out in my book, is a striving, against corporate robber barons and war makers, to make those ideals a reality. And all of us, whatever age, can find immense satisfaction in becoming part of that."
As for novels, I find that Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury is hauntingly accurate in it's ominous portrayal of the future (present day for us). This is a book written 60 years ago that nails this century on the head. Very haunting. I think all high school students should read this book.
Of the books you mentioned, I think Orwell's 1984 and Wright's Native Son are still widely read in schools and highly relevant in the 21st century. As for "must reading" for American citizens, I think everyone should read Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The novel marks the very beginning of modern American literature and teaches the reader about authentic life in midwestern America before the Civil War; additionally, its satiric values and homespun humor have rarely been matched since. As for students, I find To Kill a Mockingbird and The Kite Runner to be exceptional reading: TKAM for its great story about Deep South life during the Depression, and TKR for its present-day relevance.
I don't think students are encouraged to read any of these (other than 1984 and, perhaps, Native Son these days. For that matter, I wasn't encouraged to read these back in the mid '80s.
I like to think that nonfiction should be required reading. I think that people should have to read Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen, for example. It's a great critique of how history has been taught and it promotes a more realistic view of our history than we usually get. For the same reasons, I'd want people to read Founding Myths by Ray Raphael.