Gain campus harmony, game-free

Trust and candor are better than scavenger hunts.

We don't normally think of college students and scavenger hunts together. Like capture the flag, scavenger hunts seem more suited for preteens. But in recent years scavenger hunts have become part of fall orientation for schools such as Amherst and Oberlin.

I discovered this disturbing news after I learned that the students in my first-year college writing class were going on a scavenger hunt as part of their orientation. And theirs was mandatory.

Behind the reason for these hunts lies a major achievement: the growing diversity of college student bodies. But as more colleges have reached beyond the white middle class in recruiting students, they have found that tensions on their campus have also grown. Students are continually sorting themselves out along lines – race, class, religion, ethnicity – that colleges would rightly like to play down.

The scavenger hunt is used in part, to break down this self-segregation and the often tense divisions that come with it.

In the 1990s, colleges dealt with those issues a bit differently. Speech codes and required reading on race, diversity, and citizenship for incoming first-year students became widespread. The peak of what might in retrospect be called the bonding movement came with the proliferation of sensitivity groups, some voluntary, some required.

Under the direction of a trainer (usually a psychologist or social worker) groups of diverse students were put through exercises designed to reveal their hidden prejudices.

The games were considered a success when, in the eyes of the trainer, students (ideally those who insisted they lacked prejudice) owned up to the fact that they had some bigotry in them after all. It was thought that with their new awareness, these suddenly changed students had a new basis for becoming friends with those from different backgrounds.

What has changed is that college scavenger hunts have dropped the blame game and the explicit racial context in which sensitivity groups once flourished. But for students unexpectedly caught up in orientation-week scavenger hunts, there remains the sense of manipulation by the administration.

When I asked my first-year students what they thought of the scavenger hunt, they laughed. "Demeaning" was the word they used most often. "Is this summer camp?" a student wrote in an e-mail that she sent me the next day.

I tried to assure them that if enough of their complaints got back to the college, they could spare the class of 2013 a scavenger hunt.

They took some hope in that, but for now the only lesson they seem to have learned is that college can be as silly as high school, and that the best way to bond is to break the rules. The students who abandoned the scavenger hunt well before it was over were the ones who felt they had achieved a measure of dignity.

My reaction to the deans and administrators at my college and other colleges around the country who think forced scavenger hunts are a good idea is, I find, harsher than that of my students. As a teacher I have always operated under the rule; Don't ask your students to do what you would be unwilling to do yourself.

By this standard, I don't see the scavenger hunts of recent years as simply a well-meaning blunder worthy of a laugh. I see them as a lack of faith in students. The hunts are a gimmick that rest on the idea that quick fixes are possible on such profound issues.

The good news is that there are alternatives.

Alternative No. 1 is trust. Deans and administrators need to believe the students that their colleges have recruited will make good-faith efforts to understand each other by trial and error – in the classroom, in joint activities of their choosing, in the informal conversations that begin from the time school opens. Students don't come to college with the expectation that it will be a continuation of the much smaller world they knew in high school.

Alternative No. 2 is candor. If orientation is good for anything, it ought to be for making the case – as openly and eloquently as teachers and administrators know how – for college as a community.

Students pay attention to the ideas they hear in their classes. There is every reason to think they will listen just as closely to what is said in orientation if it is presented seriously and without condescension.

True, it may take a while for students to believe in the value of college as a community.

But where's the rush?

If colleges are serious about the kind of bonding they want from their students, then patience should be the order of the day. What is at stake is not conviviality but lifelong friendships and a changed learning environment.

Nicolaus Mills is a professor of American studies at Sarah Lawrence College. He is author of "Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America's Coming of Age as a Superpower."

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