Welcome Freshmen!

Peter Wood

Starting college? We have some tips. 

College offers personal freedom. Or it seems to. In reality, your choices started narrowing the moment you got your room key. The restrictions we’re talking about probably haven’t registered with you yet, because they are pretty different from the rules you encountered at home or in school.  

But the new restrictions are just as real as the old ones. 

You’ve probably already been told you are now part of a “community,” that has its own way of doing things. This is invariably presented as a good way of doing things—better than the ways you are used to. 

So, for example, you are now part of a community that deplores bias, hates hate, and excludes exclusion.  Diversity is celebrated on campus. Sustainability is everyone’s goal. Making the world a better place is a priority, and if you have what it takes, you’ll aspire to be a “citizen of the world.” You’ll do that by developing eco-friendly habits, engaging in community service, and demonstrating your open-mindedness towards difference—all kinds of difference. 

In short, in the coming weeks and months, you will be presented with an image of a new you—an appealing version of yourself as part of a movement and as a smart, aware person who “gets it.” The new image will come as an invitation, not an imposition. But like a lot of invitations, it will ask something in return. 

It will ask for a good portion of that freedom you expected to find. Here is what to watch out for:

Bias police. Not every college has them but many do. The idea is to create a hotline for students to report overheard remarks—anonymously—to campus authorities. Watch what you say; you never know who might be listening. What sorts of words might get you in trouble? According to the definition at the College of William and Mary, any “hostile remark” directed at a person “because of that person's race, sex (including pregnancy), age, color, disability, national or ethnic origin, political affiliation, religion, sexual orientation, or veteran status,” will do the trick. Actually, you might get reported if you say nothing at all. Then it will be up to you to prove your innocence. In addition to William and Mary, Williams College has a version of this; so does Cal Poly, Ohio State, the University of Virginia, the University of Chicago, and North Dakota State.   Maybe your college doesn’t, but don’t take that for granted. The idea is spreading quickly.

Eco-crazies. Chances are pretty good you’ve already been “invited” to reduce your carbon footprint and have been told that drinking bottled water is bad for the Earth. Chances are also pretty good you’re going along with this. Should you?  Are you that sure these folks have it right? How much more are you willing to give up before you start taking a serious look at their premises? Be careful, though: some people may get pretty angry if you express doubts about global warming, or mention that Greenland’s name reflects the fact that it wasn’t always covered with ice.

Diversity. You’ve been hearing this word since kindergarten, and it is second nature to you now to regard “diverse” as a close synonym of “good.”   Maybe you have some tiny seeds of doubt that dividing people up into groups according to their ethnic heritage, race, “gender,” disability, sexual preference and so on isn’t necessarily the best way to honor and recognize human difference. Such seeds of doubt, however, tend to get crushed under the heavy claims that before we learned to “celebrate diversity,” the members of these groups suffered endless oppression. In short, students have been taught to see history through the lens of group grievance and many have little idea how genuinely diverse and tolerant American society was before the rise of “diversity” as an educational doctrine.

Learning to see what is ideological about an ideology is difficult but it is part of a college education. Unfortunately your college is far more likely to want to reinforce the diversity ideology than to help you consider it critically. You may have already seen this reinforcement in your application if you were invited to write a “diversity essay.” You will see it again in course requirements, the organization of student groups, and the singling out of some groups for special treatment. 

With all this emphasis on diversity, however, there are some important aspects of diversity you probably won’t encounter. Colleges like to emphasize outward differences but oddly they give little positive attention to differences of the mind. You are almost certain to encounter in your courses major writers who are currently celebrated by the political left, and almost no writers celebrated by the political right. You will see announcements of prominent people invited to campus to speak. Many of them will simply be experts in their fields who have no political message, but some will be invited because they are political activists.   That could be a good thing, if done fairly. Students need to be introduced into the important political debates of our time. The trouble comes when colleges invite only the activists from one side of the political spectrum. Usually that means liberals or leftists. Other groups—moderates, conservatives, and libertarians, for example, are seldom invited. There is, in other words, a lack of intellectual diversity on campus. 

It isn’t easy to notice what’s not there. Students starting out in college tend to take things as they find them and assume everything is normal. You’ll have to work hard to see just how one-sided a college can be.

Religion.  Most students come to college with some religious faith, and most private colleges in the United States were originally founded by religious denominations. Even public colleges and universities used to have chapels and most still have chaplains representing a variety of faith traditions. Nonetheless college these days is not especially friendly to students who have strong faith convictions. Students at some colleges who have tried to start Bible study groups have encountered administrative obstacles. The University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire, for example, banned RAs from leading private Bible studies in 2005 and rescinded the ban only under outside pressure.  Another branch of the University of Wisconsin, at Superior, banned InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. InterVarsity’s rules require that its leaders uphold the belief that homosexuality is a sin—a view that the University found “illegal and discriminatory.” Southern Illinois University at Carbondale imposed a similar rule. At Tufts University, the Tufts Christian Fellowship lost its affiliation with the University in 2000 because it refused to open its leadership to gay students. Last year, a human resources official at the University of Toledo was fired after expressing her Christian opposition to homosexuality in a local paper.  

Gay rights isn’t the only issue that can get a campus religious group in trouble. In 2003, the Students Bar Association at Gonzaga University, a Catholic university in Washington, refused to recognize a pro-life Christian group on the grounds that the group allowed only Christians in its leadership. In 2005, a Catholic social work student at the University of Illinois, Springfield was pressured to leave her degree program after one of her professors told her, "You cannot be a Social Worker and be pro-life.”

These are not the only forms of discrimination that those with strong religious convictions are likely to encounter on campus. The devout usually have thick skins and can handle merely verbal abuse, but double standards and institutional hostility are something else. If you are religious, be prepared to face unfair opposition.

Ideology. We’ve already mentioned several kinds of ideology you might encounter. The bias police base their violations of free speech on the belief that people are so fragile that one wrong word can oppress them. The eco-crazies talk up an impending environmental apocalypse—for which there is no scientific evidence at all. The diversity celebrants urge us to see the world as divided between the oppressors and the oppressed, and to set things right by feeling ashamed. The secularists are alarmed at the idea that people might take their religious beliefs seriously. These are the four most prominent forms of ideology on campus, but not the only ones. You might also run into terms like “world citizenship,” “social justice,” “civic engagement,” “service learning,” or “heteronormativity,” among others. We won’t try to explain these here. Consider it homework. Welcome to college.            

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