Summer Reading Questions and What They Reveal About Faculty

After three decades in higher education as student and teacher, this year I begin a new role, as parent. My eldest daughter will attend a small liberal arts college in Iowa.

Like many schools, her college asks incoming freshmen to read a common summer reading. Its choice for the incoming students this year is Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi, a book about “stereotype threat,” which is the idea that racial or other stereotypes pose a threat because they create expectations about how individuals will act.

This is the sort of book that colleges often assign as summer reading. What struck me as worth commenting on, though, were the discussion questions that accompanied it. There were nine questions to guide the conversation and ensure that the many small discussion groups share a similar experience.

The second question reads:

On page 3, Steele defines “identity contingencies” as “the things you have to deal with in a situation because you have a given social identity.” Think about a time when an identity contingency has affected you negatively. Can you recall a time when you benefitted from an aspect of your identity?

Innocuous as it may seem, on further reflection this question, and the matter-of-fact way in which it is posed, reveals something striking about the world-view it assumes. The possession of a social identity—whether as African-American, WASP, LGBT, Good ol’ Boy, or anything else—is presumptively bad. It leads to things “you have to deal with.”

Note that the question assumes that all students have experienced negative effects, but it doubts (“Can you recall…?) whether they have noticed any positive effects. Even for those who have, the language shifts to social identities providing “benefits,” by asking how students might be privileged.

And as we all know, in academia having “privilege” automatically reduces one’s credibility and right to express one’s opinion—hardly reasons to value possessing a social identity.

After asking the students to link social identities to “stereotype threat,” the questions continue in the same vein.

How does stereotype threat interfere with cross-cultural understanding and relationships?

The question provokes an examination of how social identities, through the stereotypes they permit, prevent dialogue and friendships. In the context of a small liberal arts school, could anything be worse? Ironically, for a college that talks so much about diversity, students aren’t asked to consider how misunderstandings might arise because diverse individuals genuinely see things differently.

Another question asks, “Is it possible to feel stereotype threat from multiple aspects of your identity?”

Perhaps so, but the point seems less to elicit an answer than to remind the “under-privileged” of the connections between their different experiences and open the possibility for some students to claim a higher place on the ladder of suffering.

On the surface, the questions written and assigned by a small faculty committee push a progressive narrative about how race divides the country. That’s hardly newsworthy. What struck me as interesting about them is their unquestioned assumption that social identities are bad, and the implied worldview behind that.

Philosophers often compare two visions of humanity: the “liberal individual,” who relates to others through voluntary relationships and understands life through his own rational choices, and the “social individual” who exists embedded in a web of unchosen relationships that guides his choices and in terms of which he understands life.

Progressives have a history of criticizing the liberal vision. Karl Marx, for example, attacked the “Cash Nexus” between buyers and sellers, and Herbert Marcuse warned about the alienation of the individual under capitalism.

And yet, what is my daughter’s college teaching incoming students? In their words (and Steele’s), that our un-chosen identities—those of blood, soil, religion, and culture—threaten everyone and actually prevent relationships. Such identities ought, the questions assert, to be stripped of meaning so they no longer tell us anything about the individual.

Knowing that someone is from Appalachia, for example, might provide a conversation starter but if we assume anything about that person’s religion or experience in the outdoors, for example, that’s dangerous stereotyping. The questions seem to demand that we become generic, picking transient identities that are no more than masks we don and doff at will, and that have no deeper meaning.

To be sure, stereotypes can be harmful, but the humanist in me wonders why the questioners ignore the depth of human experience that such identities provide, or the trust and bonds they facilitate.

What would Wendell Berry, with his beautiful evocations of how place matters in our lives, think? What would an observant Jew think after being told that using ritual and the Mosaic Law to affirm her place in history and her relationship with the universe should convey nothing about who she is? In comparison to the richness of those two lives, the questioners’ vision of humanity offers only a shallow homogeneity.

The social scientist in me wonders why the questions don’t invite students to explore Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel prize winning research that finds how shared social identities allow real-life individuals to overcome collective action problems, or Robert Putnam’s work demonstrating how ties of social identities reduce crime and increase voluntarism.

Those scholars’ conclusions echo the way centuries of immigrants used social identity ties to build the community they needed to overcome challenges. Stereotypes can be divisive, but an honest analysis would admit that they can also foster trust and cooperation among strangers.

Consciously or not, by avoiding the nuances of social identity and leading the students to see only one side of the issues the faculty deny their students the bonds and community that trust can provide.

To me, though probably not to the incoming students, the assigned book, and even more the assigned questions, challenge not the state of race in America, but the state of Progressivism in academia. They point students to an understanding of humanity as composed of atomized, undifferentiated individuals only relating to each other through rational bonds of interest.

The intellectual descendants of Herbert Marcuse now lead their students on the very path to alienation that he warned about.

How did this happen? Perhaps it stems from the progressives’ need to bulldoze relationships like family or church that impede the use of State power to remake society. Perhaps from their fetishizing certain kinds of “diversity.” Or maybe even from the disenchantment of secular modernity. I don’t know, but it saddens me to see how Progressivism has fallen from the life-affirming spirit of Rousseau to the dystopias of Brave New Word and Brazil.

For our daughter, we hope that the time we spent homeschooling and embedding her in the still-thick ties of her mother’s culture inoculates her from the corrosive effects of college, but I fear for her peers.

  • Dan

    As good as this piece is, it is incomplete. Identification with certain social groups is to be seen not as negative but as positive. This is what leads to the continuing calls–demands- for curriculum change to reflect minority experience and viewpoints..

    • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

      I had similar concerns — these are issues in the sociology of cognition, which understands stereotypes as the “habituation of typifications,” how the stock of socially constructed knowledge is accumulated, and more importantly, transferred from one generation to the next. The underlying issue is not “stereotype threat” but the fact that our reality is a social and cultural product. Everyday life without “common sense” assumptions (including something as simple as language) cannot be imagined, cannot be conceived.

      This distinction becomes very important when dealing with people from diverse backgrounds.

      Social psychology (Claude Steele is trained as a psychologist) is not equipped to deal with the larger issue of how all this is shaped, channeled and filtered by our organizations and institutions. Institutional and structural racism, for example, cannot be discussed without attention to the cognitive dimension. This is what makes change so difficult, if not impossible. Race stands out in this respect because personal interactions involve a visual component, and the color of a persons’ skin is perhaps the first thing we notice about them.

  • bdavi52

    Grinnell, Coe, Wartburg — it matters little. Formerly brilliant, little Liberal Arts gems hidden in the cornfields of Iowa, themselves solidly & metaphorically rooted in Forster’s earth — those days, these schools have gone, washed away in the Social Justice flood.

    Down the rabbit-hole we’ve dived and discovered in that downward plunge that all the things which do, in fact, bring us together as a single people, united in our shared hopes, shared dreams, shared standards, shared truths can indeed be fully inverted to take us all apart.

    The required reading does exactly that — emphasizing over and over again: you can tell a book by its cover. More than that, it reassures the impressionable mind that we are, in fact, little more than cover. When once we were human beings, Americans, eager-hungry-striving college students, united in talent, in desire, in mission, in dream convinced that it mattered not at all how we looked, how tall we were, how fat, how curly our hair, how dark our skin, how different our accent, our religion, or snack food preference….now we learn that we are only and ever a collection of cultural, social, demographic qualities & stereotypes. We are told that that is how people see us…and that is how we see people. Further and much worse, we learn that these ‘social/demographic identities’ more or less trump what, in fact, we truly are: how we think and what we do & say.

    I am woman; I am Black; I am Gay; I am whatever. These superficialities, we’re told, are us…..and most important for an incoming group of freshmen, of course, is to be forced to wrestle with each other’s ‘hidden’ steretotypical selves (assumed, of course, to be constant according to whatever box we appear to inhabit).

    Let us not assign Shakespeare or Plato or Euripedes or Milton. Let us not push the many-faced diversity of our freshman class into considering, as a group, a monumental & enduring work of Western Civilization. Let us not work to bring them together, as a group in an effort which unites through the intellectual exploration it requires. Rather let us atomize them, make each distinct from the other according to the demographic qualities they display.

    Sadly & increasingly the graduates from such programs have mastered little beyond the Progressive Dogma in which they swim. They can speak with eloquence about stereotype threat, micro-aggressions, Critical Race Theory, White Privilege, Systemic Sexism, and Sexual fluidity…..but Western Civilization (what is is, how it works, how it’s founded, the Canon which comprises it?)? Nah, that’s just Paternalistic, Racist, White Eurocentric Trash.

    I hope your daughter is able to rise above the crud which will surround her.

    For a more direct perspective, I’d recommend “Dispatches from a MicroAggression Scout”

  • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

    I agree that the study questions are “leading the students to see only one side of the issues the faculty deny their students the bonds and community that trust can provide. … [and] point students to an understanding of humanity as composed of atomized, undifferentiated individuals only relating to each other through rational bonds of interest.”

    But, ironically, isn’t this exactly the libertarian view? I thought it was!

    • George Ehrhardt


      That’s a popular misconception about Libertarianism. If you think about it more, you’ll see that libertarian society requires intense intra-personal ties that function to produce trust and cooperation in lieu of state coercion. See the work by Ostrom and Putnam (not libertarians for sure, but their work supports this) that I mention.

      As to why the misconception is so widespread, I’d venture to say that most (progressive) faculty never bother to think too deeply about it. On my computer at work I have a quote from a published book that literally says something like “Libertarians aren’t exactly fascists, but they’re close enough.” Anyone who can write (or print) that can’t be thinking too hard.

      • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

        Thank you for the reply. The “misconception” is widespread for historical reasons, I think.

        The English Revolution pitted traditionalists against Puritans and dissenters, producing a forced religious and political compromise — Deism, and classical liberalism. In this context, the ideas of anti-authoritarianism, Adam Smith, the rise of the middle class, John Locke, all fueled and sustained a constant focus on the individual, and individual “rights,” and the consent of the governed as central to fair government. Part of that result is something along the lines of as we know it today.

        Libertarian ideas that I encounter consistently ignore or undervalue the role of institutions and institutionalization in producing things like a “free market.” Luckily, economic sociology brings to the surface these factors, especially the new economic sociology, building on the opening created by Oliver Williamson and Douglass North. Sociologists like Mary Douglas made Williamson a target for criticism (in “How Institutions Think”), while North was gently melded into the fold.

        Libertarianism and fascism very far apart, indeed. The symbol of the fasces, bundled wooden rods, is collective and molar, and clearly demonstrates its anti-libertarianism .

        Another problem I have with abstract libertarian democratic processes related to scaling up-wards from rural yeoman citizenry to mass urban societies. There is no inherent reason why processes developed for the former should also work for the latter; indeed, everyday, headlines about our “too big to fail” organizations remind us that they succeed only fitfully. Mass bureaucracies swallow the individual, because it is in their very nature to tread on the backs of individuals to advance their goals. Libertarians are contrarianists, but they offer no viable alternative.