The Pretense of Education: Social Indoctrination in the Orientation Program
By Ben Whedon '18
It is a cold, fall morning. A mass of people are escorted onto a barren field. A stern-faced official orders them to form a line. Confused murmurs fill the air as anxious voices speculate their purpose. In the midst of this strange gathering, a single young man remains silent. “What are we doing here?” he asks himself. His thoughts are interrupted by the official’s demands for an orderly formation. As the group members take their places, anxious looks are exchanged between them. All wait in anticipation of further instruction. A booming command from the official breaks the silence. “If you are of white ethnicity, take three steps forward.” As the bulk of those present move to comply, the mood turns to fear. A second command prevents any further communication. “Let all women take three steps backward.” Several subsequent orders follow. “Heterosexuals move forward” is the next command. “Let the LGBT among you step back” comes next. The disabled are sent to the rear. The young man, now at the end of the field, turns and sees many of his compatriots divided, spread across the field. Several of his friends stare from across the field. From them, he is far removed. “What have I done?” he wonders. “Why am I being singled out?”
On the surface, such a scene might resemble the work camp sorting lines that marked an age of division and hate best left buried. Sadly, this is the increasingly prevalent atmosphere on college campuses in the United States, and it has reached Washington and Lee. The events on the barren field describe a new step in student orientation for incoming first years. Dubbed the “Privilege Walk,” this divisive activity is being used by universities to indoctrinate their incoming students and initiate them into the cult of identity politics. The nominal intent of such a policy is to make incoming students aware of the different backgrounds of their fellow students and to reflect on their own fortunes. This objective, however well-intentioned, will never play out well in reality. True, many of our students come from foreign countries or from varying socio-economic backgrounds. A well-adjusted W&L student should indeed be aware of these differences when dealing socially with their peers. However, college is a time for learning and self-discovery. These truths ought to be left for the students to discover on their own rather than haphazardly espoused by an impersonal administration. To a freshman student from rural West Virginia, who may indeed have never met a Muslim, or perhaps even someone from another country, this program will be more likely to validate any previously-held discomforts with the unfamiliar rather than encourage the expansion of one’s worldview. In attempting to highlight the emotional and social distances between students, the administration would literally place a physical distance between them. In an environment like Washington and Lee, in which admittedly, our various social institutions such as Greek Life, Sports Teams, and clubs already work to splinter the student body, the use of the Privilege Walk upon arrival would only accelerate the process.
Fortunately, the higher-ups at Washington Hall have yet to implement this divisive program to its fullest extent. As of 2016, the practice has only been tested on the orientation staff. The fifty pre-orientation trip leaders served bravely as guinea pigs for this experiment during their training process this year. I had the opportunity to speak with one of the App Adventure trip leaders who, for obvious reasons, wished to remain anonymous. He described the process as having no cohesive goal with students being told to “get out of it whatever you want to get out it.” He went on to report that whatever good may have been intended from the exercise, the end result was largely negative. He described the resulting environment as “polarized” with the “classic W&L student way out in front.” Rather than encourage dialogue or self-reflection, it seems that the nature of this process serves only to instill a sense of shame in the straight, white male constituency of the student body. When asked about the possibility of expanding the Privilege Walk to the freshman class, he remarked, “I think it would be terrible” - stating that the policy is counterproductive and would only encourage existing divisions within the school. Hopefully, the new President and the Student Affairs office will place some value on the insights of their test subjects.
Under normal circumstances, pre-Orientation training is an autonomous program with little oversight coming from Washington Hall. Curiously, in the last year of Ruscio’s Presidency, that tradition, like so many others, has been abolished. The institution of the Privilege Walk was reportedly a top-down decision imposed without consulting the training program’s normal planners. This comes in the same year that the administration decided to convert the many public restrooms to “all gender” inclusive status, and the same year that the University allowed students to pick from a myriad of gender options in matriculation, some of which lack even a cohesive definition. It is clear that the administration has embraced far-left social theory and works actively to promote its acceptance amongst the school community. This is a disturbing turn of events. Why is a university, a supposed bastion of independent thought and the pursuit of truth, so heavily promoting controversial socio-political theories which enjoy nowhere near universal consensus?
In the Eighteenth Century, the universities of New England were bastions of independent thought, free-speech, and the civil exchange of ideas. It is from these institutions that the values on which our nation is based were born. Witnessing the effects of our unrestricted ruminations, the monarchs of Europe fearfully cracked down on higher education at home and stalled significant liberal reform for nearly a century in a vain attempt to delay free thought from toppling autocracy. The onward progress of our nation and society is dependent on the pursuit of truth, freedom of opinion, and the discourse that comes from difference of opinion. Sadly, many of our nation’s institutions of higher learning have forgotten this insight. Indoctrinating policies like the Privilege Walk and Safe Spaces leave students either unchallenged in their views or unwilling to express their dissent. Earlier this year, the University of Chicago made headlines when the Dean of Students issued a statement to the incoming students that school did not condone “safe spaces” and instead would work to challenge students at every turn. This is a model for Washington and Lee to follow. Rather than promote radical social theories dubiously supported by facts as truth, it should instead encourage discussion of the topic to be considered by the evidence. Instead of lining students up and authoritatively labeling them as “privileged,” we ought instead to foster discourse on the validity of such accusations. If we as a university fail to challenge our students to develop their perspectives, then we fail in our school’s central mission.