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.