The First-Year Experience as an identity politics cottage industry

City Journal published an interesting piece recently looking at the growth of the First-Year Experience, an idea launched in the 1970s in response to anti-war protesters. The idea of the FYE is to create a common experience for all incoming freshman which usually involves an assigned book, a speaker, workshops, group participation, etc. The FYE isn’t taught by professors but by school administrators, most of whom are focused on the modern vision of diversity and inclusion. In other words, the FYE often winds up being a required course in identity politics and social justice:

Last year, when the University of Oregon assigned Between the World and Me for the common read, it paid Ta-Nehisi Coates $41,500 for a campus appearance (while also meeting his contractual requirement to be supplied with Nature Valley Oats ’n Dark Chocolate granola bars), and afterward students complained that the university hadn’t gotten its money’s worth. Coates was scheduled for a speech and question-and-answer session lasting 75 minutes, but he left the stage after 40 minutes without taking questions. Somehow, it didn’t feel very inclusive.

For colleges that can’t afford Coates, the first-year conference is a chance to scout for cheaper alternatives. Besides Lythcott-Haims, there’s another autobiographer, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, who gets a warm reception for her book When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir. The administrators pack another ballroom to hear about All American Boys, a novel written to protest the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. The protagonist is an amalgam of the two martyrs, with a few details changed. Instead of pounding a white man’s head against the sidewalk, as Martin did, or shoplifting and then assaulting a police officer, as Brown did, this young African-American man is a peaceful, law-abiding customer at a convenience store, wrongly accused of shoplifting by a white police officer who slams his head against the pavement. The novel’s coauthors, one white and one black, extol their collaboration as a model for how the races can learn to communicate with each other—or at least communicate in one direction, as the white author, Brendan Kiely, tells the audience. “The most important thing I can do as a white man is listen, listen, listen to the truth coming from communities of color across the country,” he says. “I especially want to reckon with whiteness. Because as a white person I can’t talk about racism or dismantle the system that supports it or eradicate racism itself without first grappling with whiteness. It is whiteness that perpetuates racism.”…

The latest report by the NAS, a group dedicated to reviving traditional liberal arts education (and a haven for nonprogressives in academia), analyzes some 350 schools’ common-read books and finds a “continuing obsession with race” as well as an “infantilization of students.” The three most frequently assigned books are by Coates, Bryan Stevenson, and Wes Moore, all dealing with America’s mistreatment of African-Americans. The rest of the top ten books almost all deal either with African-Americans or another social-justice identity group, whether it’s women, immigrants, Muslims, Latin-Americans, or Asian-Americans.

The assigned reading and the author’s speech are just the start of the FYE. Students also have to demonstrate their understanding of the identity politics material through testing and workshops:

All Texas Tech freshmen are required to get a passing grade in a weekly “Learning Community Group” devoted to topics like “Gender and Sexuality,” “Sexual Assault Scenario,” “Microaggression and Privilege,” and, of course, “Race and Ethnicity.” After doing exercises like the “race card project,” in which students write down six words on what race means to them, they demonstrate their mastery of the subject by filling out questionnaires asking if they agree or disagree with statements like, “I understand how ethnic minority groups in the United States still experience underprivilege.” (Can you guess the right answer?) The students take the implicit attitude test (IAT), which supposedly detects their unconscious racial bias by measuring their reaction time to words and pictures.

The IAT is not reliable and does not reveal hidden bias. Students should not be taking it as any kind of insight into themselves or others. But as author John Tierney explains, the goal of these programs isn’t really to teach anything useful to students so much as it is to promote progressive ideals and expand the importance of FYE administrators.

“The student activists really opened the door,” said Howard Graham, one of the Kansas administrators. “We’ve seen tremendous growth in our program.” The school sponsored faculty and staff workshops in “Difficult Dialogues” and “Deconstructing Privilege.” It paid for dozens of speakers to come to campus for talks about race. The first-year program worked with the university art museum to put on an exhibit based on the next year’s common read, Coates’s Between the World and Me, and persuaded professors to incorporate the book into almost 200 class sections. The next year saw another art exhibit celebrating the common read, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, a book of poetry about microaggressions against blacks, which was incorporated into even more classes. “Facilitators” from the first-year program were sent out to dorms to lead discussions about the book, with optional sessions exclusively for students of color.

The Kansas administrators were clearly proud of their efforts, but they confessed to being disappointed by one result. In surveys taken after the group discussions about the Coates and Rankine books, more than 80 percent of the facilitators agreed that the “discussion taught things that students could use in campus life,” but a majority of the students disagreed. They didn’t think that they had learned anything useful. Some even volunteered comments that “race was a subject they were simply tired of talking about,” which just proved to the administrators how much work remained to be done.

Naturally, one year of ideological re-education is not enough for the people running these programs. Tierney notes that some administrators are now pushing the Sophomore-Year Experience as a follow-up.