College orientation can help students cope — or drive them apart

A freshman newly arrived on campus and inundated with the many college-orientation sessions that mark his first experience in a new situation might wonder, why all the fuss?

One reason is the difficulty of the first year of college on some students. Freshmen drop out at higher rates than upperclassmen, have trouble availing themselves of the array of services for them given the bewildering array of campus services in general, and may even have trouble adjusting to life in a campus setting away from home. Freshmen are typically not settled with their chosen major, and changes in majors are typical.

As Anne Matthews wrote in Bright College Years: Inside the American Campus Today, “To have any hope of surviving a first campus fall, students need to learn thoroughly, then cling to, a handful of campus environments. The classroom, where public performance is suddenly serious. The dorm cubicle, dull and bare, waiting for posters and pillows bought on a first credit card. Dining halls, where walking down the aisle alone, balancing a tray, brings high school uncertainties flooding back. Computer clusters, airless under fluorescent light, packed with strangers who all seem to know far more than you do.”

These problems can be discouraging to the students, but they also impose costs on the universities’ time, space and other resources. Universities have therefore found it practical to direct resources to orienting freshmen to their new academic setting. Freshmen orientation lays out the map of the university’s advising system before the students, and it also introduces them to programs and counselors who might help those who need it to stay afloat. It also allows students to meet and befriend peers who’re facing the same issues and concerns.

There’s another reason for orientation, however. It’s that freshmen are entering an entirely different culture. Not for nothing do students in college refer to the world outside as “the real world.”

As Dario Fernandez-Morera wrote in American Academia and the Survival of Marxist Ideas, American higher education is “a socialist microstate.” American universities use racial preferences for admissions (socialist countries used class preferences), and students have socialized medical care, live in public housing, and are issued meal tickets. Orientation thus must prepare students for life in a socialist microstate. But how?

“Within days of arrival on campus, ‘new students’ (the euphemism of choice for ‘freshmen’) learn the paramount role of gender, race, ethnicity, class, and sexual orientation in determining their own and others’ identity,” reported Heather MacDonald in The Wall Street Journal Sept. 29, 1992 (“Welcome, Freshman! Oppressor or Oppressed?”). MacDonald found two themes dominating freshman orientation programs: “oppression and difference — foreshadowing the leitmotifs of the coming four years.” These programs amount to what MacDonald called “ideological delousing” and “political re-education.”

“A central goal of these programs is to uproot ‘internalized oppression,’ a crucial concept in the diversity education planning documents of most universities,” wrote Alan Charles Kors for Reason magazine in March 2000 (“Thought Reform 101”). Kors, like Fernandez-Morera, noted the socialist genesis of the programs. “Like the Leninists’ notion of ‘false consciousness,’ from which it ultimately is derived, it identifies a major barrier to progressive change the fact that victims of oppression have internalized the very values and ways of thinking by which society oppresses them.”

“Requiring attendance to sensitivity training,” one of the “main components” of these orientations, “has caused some critics to make comparisons to Soviet psychiatry and the re-education camps of some Communist countries, such as Maoist China,” wrote Wendy McElroy for Fox News May 9, 2001. “There, re-education attempted to replace ‘bad’ personal attitudes with ones that served the purpose of the state.” McElroy said, “It is a comparison worth pursuing.”

Regardless of the means, does it work? “From the evidence, most students tune it out, just as most students at most times generally have tuned out abuses of power and dimunitions of liberty,” Kors wrote. “One should not take heart from that. Where students react, it is generally with an anger that, ironically and sadly, exacerbates the balkanization of our universities.”

“Students who have been taught from day one to identify themselves and their peers with one or another oppressed or oppressing group,” MacDonald wrote, “are already replicating those group divisions in their intellectual and social lives.”