In 1970, after campus antiwar protesters ransacked and set fire to the administration building at the University of South Carolina, the school’s president appointed a task force to find a solution to student unrest. Many meetings, workshops, and encounter groups later, the university came up with an answer, and it was nothing so simple as expelling vandals and arsonists. No, the key was to teach students to “love their university,” starting with a new semester-long orientation course for freshmen.
An industry was born. John Gardner, an assistant professor of history and a social activist, made the course into an institution. He called it the Freshman-Year Experience, until he decided that the name was sexist and renamed it the First-Year Experience, now known commonly as FYE. He and his disciples promoted it so diligently that it has spread to 90 percent of American colleges and is rapidly growing overseas.
The programs often start with a “common read,” a book sent to everyone the summer before school starts, and proceed with lectures, discussion groups, seminars, courses, exercises, field trips, art projects, local activism, and whatever else the schools will fund. The programs are typically run not by professors but by “cocurricular professionals”—administrators lacking scholarly credentials who operate outside the regular curriculum. They don’t need to master an academic discipline or impart an established body of knowledge. They create a cocurriculum of what they want students to learn, which usually involves a great deal of talk about “diversity” and “inclusion.”