College First Year Reading Program: Reading (and Complex Thinking) Not Required
Yet another sign of higher ed deterioration
[Liberal arts college reading material, 2022. Total words: 0, or 1 if you count “fwap”]
The common first year reading for entering students at the university where I’m employed this year was a comic book—or a graphic novel in the Newspeak of our contemporary culture. This one, in which George Takei/Mr. Sulu of Star Trek fame, through a team of ghost writers, tells a monolithically Woke version of the story of Japanese internment during WWII.
First point: This is what we are giving to entering students to introduce them to the academic life.
A comic book.
I refuse the glorified Newspeak term. I’ve seen the book in question. It’s a comic book, albeit a bit longer than the ones I read when I was in elementary school. Two hundred pages, most of them with word counts in the single or double digits. Some pages with no words at all (see above). If I generously give the book 50 words a page, that yields a word count of about 1/6th what you’d find in a non-graphic novel—that is, a novel—of the same page length.
The message to parents that is being sent here: “Send your kids to a pricey liberal arts college and we will give them books to “read” that have almost no words in them to be read. Such is the level of faith we have in their ability to handle anything approaching serious thinking. Comic books are what they can handle and what we consider ‘higher education.’”
Second point: It is a comic book not only in its paucity of words and abundance of drawings but in the simplicity of its narrative. The story Takei’s ghost writers provide consists solely of unrelenting racist hatred for the Japanese in US elite circles, with no possibility of any plausibly reasonable tale to be told in the way of defense and legitimation of this policy, however qualified. One doesn’t even have to apologize for the policy to recognize that the truth involved here is far more agonizingly complicated than this comic book story.
The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor was a wake up call regarding the daring and technological abilities of the Japanese military, and there were real logistical reasons to fear that the West Coast was vulnerable to espionage. The Japanese government itself was the most important source that had indicated, in cables our military intercepted, that it would endeavor to find potential allies inside the US in the Japanese immigrant community, and it seemed confident it could do so.
There in fact existed an intelligence program, MAGIC, at the outset of the war that had detected large scale espionage efforts by the Japanese military among Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast. David Lowman, a career intelligence officer at the NSA, wrote a fat book (not a graphic novel, but an actual book with lots of words on the pages) of almost 400 pages on MAGIC. He includes many examples of the startling evidence the Roosevelt administration used to assess what they came to believe was a realistic threat.
Lowman’s entire book can be accessed at archive.org. Seemingly none of the people with public platforms who want to talk about Japanese internment have had even a glance at it. I would bet my entire shrinking retirement account that neither George Takei nor any of the people who in fact produced his graphic novel so he could put his name on it have read it. I’d be surprised if Takei is even aware of its existence.
Stunningly, scandalously, when the Reagan administration decided to pay reparations to Japanese-Americans affected by the evacuation, to the taxpayer tune of $1.25 billion, no mention whatever was made of the intelligence information Roosevelt used to justify the decision. Here’s Lowman:
“Seldom has any major event in US history been as misrepresented as has US intelligence related to the [Japanese] evacuation. It has been twisted, distorted, misquoted, misunderstood, ignored, and deliberately falsified by otherwise honorable people.”
Do we really imagine first-year college students are so morally simple-minded that they cannot think about this difficult issue in the complexity with which it presented itself to us? It certainly does not make one a racist, nor even does it mean one has not reckoned with the moral seriousness of evacuating and interning residents of our country, many of whom were American citizens, if one weighs into this equation the national existential question of war. One should not enter wars one does not mean to win, and sometimes winning wars requires actions that are not perfectly fitted to moral utopias.
And it was not just the Japanese we treated in this manner during wartime. Many German and Italians inside the US were also classed as enemy aliens, many were detained, some even interned. These populations had been here much longer and in much greater numbers than the Japanese, and many were naturalized. Again, we paid large reparations to the Japanese, but no apology or payment was made to the affected Germans or Italians.
War is a mess, and this one was arguably especially messy. College students ought to be required to take on some of the messy complexity in considering it. Ideological comic books are hardly the way to introduce college students to the kind of complex thinking required in such situations.
Our first year reading program has frankly been something of a Woke joke pretty much from the start, invariably featuring simplified leftist ideology in place of careful, honest examinations of hard questions.
I participated in it a few times, entirely to give at least a few students a more measured introduction to difficult topics about which they were given bad books to read and instructed in discussion sessions by a faculty almost entirely uncritical about those bad books. In one of those sessions, I led them through some of the egregious fallacies and poor reasoning in Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, a book that claims the death penalty should be outlawed because it is hopelessly racist. In another, I demonstrated to them that a flippant feminist retranslation of Sophocles’ Antigone had utterly demolished or distorted beyond belief some of the most relevant moral elements of the play, including the fact that Antigone can reasonably be read as a conservative challenging the moral relativism of her antagonists.
[One of the slides I gave students as part of my presentation on Anne Carson’s ghastly retranslation of Antigone]
With this year’s move into the realm of the truly comical, what was already dismal has gotten markedly worse. It is plain that the people who think this is introducing students to the rigors of scholarly life themselves know precious little about the subject.
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You write of agonizingly complicated truth and of course that is the crux of it, whether racial issues, abortion, or pretty much any current topic that is causing a feeding frenzy. No one wants to deal with complicated and they certainly don't want to agonize over it. But you would think that an institution that deals with "higher thought" should be one place where sleeves are rolled up and issues tackled with a steady gaze. Once again, thank you for trying to do that.
Every now and then I lament the fact that I dropped out of college almost 20 years ago. It wasn't the only reason, but the incident that put me over the edge, when I found myself in a literature lecture by my old white woman professor with Predator braids going on and on abut evil white men and the war in Iraq and Afghanistan that solidified my decision to leave. I couldn't see myself spending the entirety of my life around bitter hateful academics. Always on the defensive, always wallowing in the cultural negativity that the modern academic world is mired in. It seems everything has gotten worse in the past two decades.