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Gain campus harmony, game-free

Trust and candor are better than scavenger hunts.

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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.

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