John Tierney joins City Journal editor Brian Anderson to discuss the First-Year Experience (FYE), a widely adopted program that indoctrinates incoming college freshmen in radicalism, identity politics, and victimology.

Beginning as a response to the campus unrest of the 1960s and 1970s, the FYE originally sought to teach students to “love their university,” with a semester-long course for freshmen. Today’s FYE programs, however—largely designed by left-wing college administrators, not professors—sermonize about subjects like social justice, environmental sustainability, gender pronouns, and microaggressions.

College freshmen could undoubtedly benefit from an introductory course to learn basic skills; why do they so often get a mix of trivia and social activism instead of something academically useful? Tierney traveled to the FYE annual conference in San Antonio earlier this year to find out.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks Podcast.  This is your host Brian Anderson, editor of City Journal.  Joining me on the show today is John Tierney.  John is a contributing editor at City Journal, and a contributing science columnist at The New York Times, where he was a reporter for many years.  You can also follow him on Twitter, @JohnTierneyNYC.  John’s here to discuss his latest piece which appears in the Summer 2018 issue of City Journal, “Reeducation Campus.”  It’s an alarming essay about the First-Year Experience, a widely adopted program for college freshmen used by schools around the country.  John, welcome back to the podcast.

John Tierney: Thanks Brian.

Brian Anderson: First, can you explain to our listeners what exactly the First-Year Experience is, what was the program created to do, and how widespread is it?

John Tierney: The First-Year Experience is a term that covers lots of programs that are designed specifically at freshmen, as they used to be called before that became politically incorrect.  And something like 90% of American colleges have some version of the First-Year Experience and it’s rapidly growing overseas too.  These programs, one of the main constituents is often a common read, as it’s called, in which all the freshmen are given one book to read.

Brian Anderson: Is this something that takes place during the summer before they come to school or does it last from the summer through school?  How exactly…

John Tierney: Both.  It often starts in the summer where you get this book to read and then when you go to campus, you know, during the orientation week, you know, there are programs and seminars and discussions and then, in the more ambitious schools this is something that goes on all year long, a year-long seminar for freshmen through, you know, various events during the freshman year.

Brian Anderson: Now, the book that’s selected, the common read, for incoming freshmen, only 6% you note in the story were published before 2000.  So, this isn’t a series of classic books that the students are reading.  Fewer than 2% of them were published before 1990.  So, they are all basically contemporary books.  Almost all of them are nonfiction and perhaps you can describe what these, you know, what these books are like or what books are being selected.

John Tierney: Right, it’s kind of the dumbing-down of the curriculum.  The people that run these programs are not scholars.  They are called co-curricular professionals.  And they are basically just, you know, supposedly getting freshmen ready for college.  But their definition of it often means, you know, lots of talk about diversity and inclusion.  And they don’t want to tax the students too much with hard books.  So, they tend – and they also love to get a book that is very easy for freshmen to read that ideally is something with an author who can come to campus and give a talk about it and further inspire everyone.  And, you know, just above all, they want a book that reflects the right progressive messages.

Brian Anderson: So, this isn’t the professors who are choosing the books, it’s a different group of people.  How do the professors feel about this First-Year Experience program?

John Tierney: A lot of professors worry about this because, for one thing, it’s taking money out of the budget.  You know, the staff that runs these programs, this bureaucracy has been increasing and meanwhile, you know, the tenured professoriate is stagnating.  And, you know, some schools do have professors on the committee that chooses the book and they can make recommendations.  But, typically, the real choice is left up to these, you know, the people that run these programs.  And they are not looking for literary quality.  They are not looking for, you know, classic works of literature at all.  They are looking for something that is easier to read and sends the right message.

Brian Anderson: What are some of the popular books that are being selected?

John Tierney: Well, the most popular theme for years now has been race.  You know, the mistreatment of African-Americans in America and the sort of reigning king is Ta-Nehisi Coates and other authors with books, memoirs of growing up black in America.  And then there are other social-identity groups that are very popular too, books about women, about Muslims, about immigrants, about Latino immigrants.  These are all very popular books.  Often either the literary quality or the intellectual quality isn’t very high but they are chosen because they reflect the right themes.

Brian Anderson: It’s really identity politics, 100%.

John Tierney: Exactly.  I mean, when students get – you know, and what’s upsetting is that students who go to college, these programs, they get to them first.  You know, your first real contact with the college is getting this book and telling you to read it and then you go and you have to sit through a discussion group where they do exercises where you have to discuss white privilege and victimhood and you kind of go through all this.  And everyone has to do it.  You know, by choosing your courses carefully in college you can avoid some of the progressive sermonizing that, you know, that passes for scholarships in departments.  But no one can avoid this First-Year Experience.  Everyone’s got to go through it.

Brian Anderson: Back earlier this year you went to San Antonio, Texas, to attend the official annual conference of the First-Year Experience program.  This is an organization, in other words, that puts this together.  Could you tell us a bit about your experience at that conference and who were some of the speakers featured?

John Tierney: Yeah, it was a bit kind of like attending a Scientology convention.

Brian Anderson: Really?

John Tierney: You are in this very strange world, you know, where people just, you know, there is a jargon about it was all diversity and inclusion and privilege and, of course, transgender.  We had to know the gender pronouns.  And almost everyone – you know, it seemed much farther Left than the normal faculty, even.  You know, on a typical college faculty you’ve got some at least nonprogressive teaching in the sciences and business school.  But here, just everyone seemed to be progressive.  And, you know, what happens at this, it’s a convention where they talk about ways to expand – it’s basically how can expand our budgets more, how can we grow our programs and do even more?  And part of it, it’s financed in part by the publishing industry because these common read books, you know, if a big school assigns every freshman to read a book, it’s like 5,000 copies they’re selling right there.  So, the publishers send their authors to basically do Ted Talks to audition because these administrators you know, are dying to have a live author come to campus.

Brian Anderson: Sure, it’s incredibly lucrative both for publisher and author I would imagine to be on the short list of people who are you know, getting selected for this program.

John Tierney: Exactly, and so the publishers put on lunches and dinners for all the academics who are there – all these co-curricular professionals as they are known.  They are not really trained academics.  And so, the authors give a 15-minute talk, you know, sort of a peppy talk about their book and why it will help students, you know, learn about their ethnic identity, why it will promote, you know, multicultural values on campus.

Brian Anderson: Towards the end of your essay you note some fascinating results from a survey that was done by one university’s First-Year Experience program.  And this was concerning the Coats book Between the World and Me.  Tell us a bit about that.

John Tierney: Right.  This was a survey at the University of Kansas which had used the Coates book and also another book by Claudia Rankine, Citizen, in another year, which is also a book about micro – it’s a book of poetry about how African-Americans experience microaggressions.  And they had these books, you know, two years in a row and they had this really ambitious program where they had art exhibits pegged.  It was used not just in something the students read, but it was introduced in hundreds of class sections and there were all kinds of – there were dozens of speeches about race on campus.  And they surveyed the students about the book and the facilitators, there is this whole core of facilitators who went out and led discussions.  There were discussions in the dorms about these books.  There were discussions limited to students of color, you know, it was all – and so they survey, and the facilitators thought this was a great success when they were asked did the students learn something that will help them in their life, the facilitators overwhelmingly said absolutely.  But when they asked the students, the students said, the majority of the students said no.  And in fact, they said frankly we are kind of tired of talking about race.  And it was interesting because, you know, years earlier they had used a fairly unorthodox choice.  They had used Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms as their common read for all the freshmen and the facilitators didn’t like this at all.  They thought it was, you know, they complained about the misogyny and the hypermasculinity of Hemingway and yet, to the shock of the administrators and the facilitators, the students actually thought they learned something useful from a book by a dead white male.  It seemed incredible to these people.

Brian Anderson: This program is generated out of what locale?  Where is the First-Year Experience Institution located, or is it kind of a virtual organization?

John Tierney: The First-Year Experience movement, it began in 1970 and it was sparked by – no pun intended – by a protest at the University of South Carolina where the students, they ransacked some buildings, they set fire to the administration building and it was part of an anti-war protest.  And why you burn down the administration building because you’re upset about a war is – but anyway, the university president, you know, he appointed a special committee to find out you know, how can we avoid this kind of protest in the future?  And my answer would be, well maybe you should expel people who set fire to your building.  But they didn’t.  That was – nothing so simple as that.  Instead, they decided that the solution was to make students love the university.  So, the University of South Carolina started this course and it was led by a very liberal social activist named John Gardner.  They started a course, basically, that was for all freshmen that was to teach them to love the university.  And it was, you know, he then took this message and he started spreading it to other schools and eventually an institute was founded that promotes this whole idea of the First-Year Experience.  And it just has expanded wildly now, where this conference that I went to in San Antonio, there were 2,000 academics from twenty countries there.

Brian Anderson: Wow.  And I think you mentioned something like 90% of schools have some variation of the program.

John Tierney: That’s right.  You know, and it’s even – it’s growing overseas.  There were people from Australia, from Europe who were there.  And the scariest thing of all is that there is now – of course one year isn’t enough – there is now the Second-Year Experience.

Brian Anderson: So that started as an initiative?

John Tierney: Yes, there is a whole separate conference for that.  And that’s only at a couple dozen schools.  But I am sure that it’s going to keep growing.

Brian Anderson: Bad ideas have a tendency to spread, unfortunately, especially on university campuses.  So, anyway, John, thank you very much.  Don’t forget to check out John Tierney’s Essay, “Reeducation Campus.”  It’s on our website,  You can follow John on Twitter, @JohnTierneyNYC.  We would also love to hear your comments about today’s episode on Twitter, @CityJournal.  And finally, if you like the show and want to hear more, please leave ratings and reviews on iTunes.  Thanks for listening.  And thanks again, John, for joining us.

John Tierney: Thank you, Brian.

Photo: FatCamera/iStock

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