By Charlotte Allen
"Parents asking, 'Where's the trash?' were promptly corrected by event staff and volunteers, who proudly provided composting crash courses to the thousands of students and family members."
The "event"---described in an online news release--was the Second Annual Zero-Waste Freshman Orientation Picnic at Duke University on Aug. 19, a campus event for entering Duke students and their families that featured "local and organic foods," biodegradable cornstarch drinking cups, and a taboo against anything plastic---all part of the latest college-administration fad, aggressive recycling in the name of "minimizing our campus footprint."
Some of the parents of the 1,600 or so Duke freshmen who attended the picnic might have wondered why they had to undergo being "corrected" by Duke employees and student volunteers for using the politically incorrect word "trash," or to receive "composting crash courses" from youngsters when they were already coughing up or going into hock for the nearly $50,000 a year it costs to send one of one's offspring to Duke. Duke allows students from households with annual incomes of less than $60,000 to attend the university for free, but everybody else---and that includes the modestly upper-middle-class---has to come up with cash, mortgage the family home, or take out loans in order to pay for a Duke education. Still, Duke's administrators seemed confident that they were teaching both parents and incoming students a welcome lesson. Boasting of the 95 percent waste-diversion rate the university had achieved at both freshman picnics by sending 5,000 pounds of organic food scraps and cornstarch cups to the compost heap instead of the dumpster, the Duke web page prophesied, "In two short years, styrofoam plates, plastic napkins and cups will be unfamiliar artifacts to all of Duke's students."
The lavish yet pointedly consciousness-raising Duke picnic was a paradigm of freshman orientation twenty-first century-style: a combination of entertainment, low-key indoctrination, and a level of parental involvement that would have been unthinkable a generation or two ago, when there was no such thing as an orientation event for parents. Back then, the main job of mothers and fathers of college freshmen was to drop off their offspring plus personal stuff at the dorm a few days before classes began and then turn around and drive back home to celebrate the freeing up (finally!) of one of the family bedrooms. For students, orientation consisted of a few days of placement tests and class registration plus maybe a mixer.
Now, the "few days" of college orientation are more like a week, and, as seems fitting in this age of the helicopter mom and dad just a cell-call away from their young darlings and the complaints hotline at the dean's office, parents and their freshmen offspring now seemingly never have to say good-bye. In early September an article in the Boston Globe described orientation extravaganzas at various Massachusetts colleges: eight days of hiking, whitewater rafting, ballroom dancing, and cooking lessons at Amherst, a full eleven days of orientation at Northeastern that included rock concerts and shopping trips to Target and other stores, a seven-day blur of events at Boston's Simmons College featuring karaoke and night kickball among other things that left at least one freshman exhausted. "When you look at the schedule and see '1:30, 1, 1:30, 2,' everything can seem overwhelming," Libby Collins told the Globe. College administrators, who have to hire on extra employees as well as call on student volunteers to staff these galas say they fit in, not only with the state-of-the-art gyms and dorm suites resembling upscale apartments that are now an expected part of the campus scene, but with the intensely scripted and adult-managed educational and social lives that many teen-agers experience these days. "From soccer to swimming lessons to camps, most students have had very structured experiences; they expect that to continue," Andrew Shepardson, dean of student affairs at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass., told the Globe. Duke's orientation ritual lasted a mere six days this year---making it brief by Massachusetts standards---but the university keeps its entering freshmen busy from 8:30 a.m. to close to midnight on some days with lunches, dinners, convocations, plays, concerts, and dances, along with the Zero-Waste picnic.
The indoctrination component of freshman orientation is a trickier matter. During the 1990s and even later at some colleges, entering students were frequently required to o attend heavy-handed and heavily politicized workshops on racism, sexism and classism that typically belittled white people in general and white heterosexual males in particular. A 2000 article in Reason magazine by Alan Charles Kors, a founder of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, narrated the grim and coercive details: Freshmen at Wake Forest University in 1999 had to sit through a mandatory showing of Blue-Eyed, a 93-minute racial awareness movie in which blacks and Hispanics bombard captive whites with verbal abuse. At Swarthmore College in 1998, freshmen were asked to line up by skin color, from light to dark, and then talk about how they felt about their place in line. Around the same time Oberlin College held separate orientations for blacks, Hispanics, gays and lesbians, and Americans of Asian descent. Bryn Mawr's orientation featured a mandatory "Building Pluralism" program that probed individual students' ethnic and class experiences, their sexual orientations, and their religious beliefes, all with the aim of freeing them from "the cycle of oppression" and turning them into "change agents." A multiculturalism educator at Stanford proclaimed that white heterosexual males needed "a lot of work" done on them in freshman training sessions in order to function in a multicultural society.
The overtly Orwellian aspect of those sessions generated much public outrage, especially in their most recent manifestation, last fall's residence-life program at the public University of Delaware. Freshmen living in the university's dormitories (and all are required to do so, unless they commute from home) were told that attendance was compulsory at one-one-one confrontations with resident assistants designed to probe students' sexual orientations and religious beliefs and also at group sessions led by RA's whose training included the proposition that all whites were racists. Strictly speaking, the sessions weren't part of orientation, but they were mandatory for Delaware freshmen living in dorms---or at least the freshmen were informed that they were mandatory, which amounted to the same thing. The tax-supported university abruptly pulled the program after it garnered a raft of unfavorable publicity in both the higher-education trade press and mainstream newspapers. Delaware's current res-life program, while somewhat similar to last year's and operated by most of the same administrative personnel at the university, is a least clearly spelled out as strictly optional.
And generally speaking, that's the trend: While ideological re-education still lives as part of many a freshman orientation program, it might be more properly described as ideological re-education lite. Typical of the new approach is the zero-waste picnic at Duke---where parents were "corrected," not confronted, about their old-fashioned idea that trash belongs in a trash can, but where the long-range goal was to persuade students and their families that styrofoam plates and plastic forks are un-cool among the bien-passant.. Similar overtly ideological events during Duke's orientation week included a "Taste of Culture Luncheon" (an annual event that "introduces new students to multicultural life at Duke") and a mandatory event called "The Real Deal" that was officially described as a series of monologues and skits "that will help you make responsible social decisions at Duke" but was actually, as Duke student Kylie Harrell, an intern at the Independent Women's Forum described it, a sex-education class for those who missed sex-ed in high school, including instructions on how to use a condom and a demonstration---to what end, it remains unclear--of "Orgasm Girl," a video game whose goal is to give a virtual girl a virtual....you get the idea.
Similarly, at Swarthmore this year, the theme of orientation was "wellness," featuring yoga, tai chi, and nudges toward eating healthier snacks. At Dartmouth, the mandatory session was "AlcoEdu," three hours of warnings about the perils of failing to drink responsibly, plus yet another celebration of "diversity." The University of Pennsylvania offered, as the academic component of orientation, a smorgasbord of two-hour "proseminars" taught by Penn professors and administrators. Some of the proseminar topics stuck to strictly scholarly topics, such as particle physics and African languages, while others consisted of Duke- and Swarthmore-style introductions to the perils of booze-abuse and the virtues of contraceptives. A proseminar titled "The Gayborhood: a Walking Tour of Queer Philadelphia" advertised itself as a crash course in locating off-campus gay watering holes and lesbian bookstores. Again, it was hard to escape the pull of ideology among the titles and summaries of many of the Penn proseminars: "World Food Crisis" assumed that Western eating habits weren't sufficiently "sustainable," according to its summary, while "Thinking Beyond Capitalism" spoke for its socialism-promoting self.
As if the proseminars weren't enough, Penn administrators decided to tie orientation to its "Year of Evolution" project for the 2008-09 school year, assigning as freshman summer reading Your Inner Fish, by Neil Shubin, a University of Chicago paleontologist who helped discover Tiktaalik roseae, an Arctic fossil fish with possible characteristics of a land animal that has been proposed as a Darwinian "missing link." Shubin's book argues that many features we think of as quintessentially human, such as hands and the shape of our jaws, are actually piscine in origin. Besides requiring its entering students to read the book, Penn has planned a semester-long series of Tiktaalik-related events in which students will be asked to "visualize" their own "inner fish" and watch films such as "The Matrix" and "X-Men 3" that arguably have something to do with evolution---or maybe not. The university even specially commissioned an inner-fish recording, "The Tiktaalik Song" (listen to it here) that evokes Earth's hundreds of millions of years of fossil history via the song's seeming interminability. Just as one might wonder what the "Gayborhood" tour had to do with stretching freshmen's academic horizons, one might also wonder what singing, "Tik, tik, tik, tik, tiktaalik" to a jingly guitar backup has to do with paleontology or anything else scientific.
Finally, no freshman orientation seems complete nowadays without an unprecedented level of parental involvement that replicates for middle-aged adults the combination of no-expenses-spared entertainment, genteel indoctrination, and hand-holding that orientation means for 18-year-olds. At Stanford, for example, the "parent events calendar" for the first day of orientation on Sept. 16 consisted of more than twelve hours' worth of activities, including a stop at the "Parent Resource Center" a "parent-to-parent" advice panel designed to help moms and dads cope with the trauma of their dear one's leaving home, tours of campus facilities, and "No Un Adios, Un Hasta Luego," a Spanish-language session at the campus's Centro Chicano geared to similarly empty- nest syndrome-afflicted but English language-challenged parents of Stanford frosh.
At Reed College in Portland, Ore., mothers and fathers of entering freshmen were invited to imitate their offspring's educational experience by signing up for "Humanities 110 for Parents," which entailed reading the Odyssey, one of the books on reading list for Humanities 110, a required freshman core course, attending a convocation lecture on the Odyssey given by a Reed professor and participating in class-like small-group discussions led by more Reed professors. Some parents might have protested that they already went to college, studied the Odyssey somewhere along the line as part of their academic exposure to Western civilization, and didn't need to pretend that they were 18 years old again. They would have missed the point, however, which is that the Odyssey as taught at Reed today is not likely to be your father or mother's Odyssey. That convocation lecture on Aug. 27 was delivered by Pancho Savery, who is not a classics scholar but an English professor at Reed specializing in African-American literature. Savery made headlines in 2003 when the editors of the Reed student newspaper, Quest, resigned amid a faculty firestorm after the paper published an article criticizing Savery's annual Humanities 110 lecture titled "Black Athena" in which he argued that classical Greek culture was African in origin and also asserted that Reed needed to offer a more "diverse" curriculum. Quest got into trouble with radical faculty members at Reed who accused the paper of racism after it quoted a Reed student describing Savery's Black Athena lecture as "more inflammatory rhetoric than earnest scholarship." So the parents who attended the mock-Humanities 110 session at Reed this fall likely got a taste of how their offspring are being taught the Western classics in the 21st century: as instruments of exploitation of non-whites and women (for a recording of Savery's radical-feminist interpretation of the Odyssey in 2007, click here.)
In sum, freshman orientation at many colleges and universities has ballooned from its original function---orienting new students to the basics of campus and life---into today's extravaganza of sense-overloading entertainment, tedious and practically speaking, nearly useless sex-ed and alcohol-awareness sessions, ideologically dubious lessons in multiculturalism, sustainability, and other causes du jour, (Duke's zero-waste picnic is a prime example), and efforts to co-opt parents into the college's politically correct ethos. Whether such efforts by college administrators actually mold many freshmen in the desired directions is an open question. An article in the conservative Dartmouth Review last fall by undergraduates Matthew D. Guay and Ming K. Lee described Dartmouth's event-laden orientation week as a "parade of mandatory schlock" that mixed genuinely informative department open-houses and "complete wastes of time" that lured students only when they served free food.
The most trenchant criticism of the orientation lollapaloozas, however, is that they are expensive, and not just for parents who must pay for their own hotel rooms and meals as they troop along with their offspring and receive empty-next counseling. Stanford's 2008 orientation involved the services of 32 paid administrators and student staffers plus the work of 300 volunteers and "peer mentors." With the cost of attending Stanford and other elite schools escalating into the $40,000-plus range, wouldn't trimming back some of the orientation-week fat---and thus possibly lowering that cost--make parents and students happier than all the green picnics, "Gayborhood" tours, and karaoke nights in the world?