I preface this op-ed by saying that the concept of Williams Reads – especially its recent expansion to include First Days – truly resonates with the ethos of a liberal arts education. I wish that as a first-year, I could have entered the College having read the same book as all my entrymates, for that would have inspired intellectual debate from day one as opposed to the awkward, hardly-necessary and superficial First Days conversations. Nevertheless, I was disappointed to learn that the book, which the vast majority of members of the Class of 2016 will read, is Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America.
For those who do not already know, Ehrenreich’s story chronicles her experience working minimum wage jobs while struggling to make ends meet; this is clearly a compelling plot. Ehrenreich is not timid in expressing her political philosophy throughout her book, a set of views that the author herself describes as socialist and which I would classify as anti-religious as well. At one point, Ehrenreich refers to Jesus as a “wine-guzzling vagrant and precocious socialist.” Throughout the book she derides the middle class and accuses the government of not caring for the poor, ultimately calling for a dismantling of capitalism as we know it in the U.S. She predicates her demand for a nearly 100-percent increase in the minimum wage by arguing that it is impossible for an individual to subsist on seven dollars an hour (the minimum wage in two of the states she worked in during 1998). However, this argument completely ignores the welfare programs available to the working poor such as Section Eight housing, food stamps, Medicaid and subsidized daycare. The reasons why I criticize Ehrenreich’s scholarship is to point out that this work has a strong leftist agenda – one that makes me uncomfortable.
As president of the Garfield Republicans for seven semesters, I have been approached by students of nearly every possible political orientation at the College. Some students have approached me only to challenge my viewpoints; this is to be expected at a school like Williams, where 89 percent of the campus supported Barrack Obama in the 2008 elections (according to a Record survey). However, I have also been approached by many moderate and right-leaning students who tell me, almost in a whisper, that they are not like everyone else at the College; that they believe in a flat income tax, appreciate Ayn Rand’s books (how did they get accepted here?) and stand for other right-wing tenets (especially on finance-related issues). Yet they convey this knowledge to me in a quiet corner of Paresky, as if they are ashamed of their political beliefs; they do not want to face the judgments of their peers and professors, who wantonly lambast conservatism with the power of the majority behind them.
I fear for the first-years next year who identify with right-wing principles. From day one they will be a member of one of the more underrepresented and discriminated-against minority groups on campus, and reading Nickel and Dimed will only reinforce their minority ethos. Will they feel comfortable defending controversial beliefs during their first days in Williamstown if they are surrounded by 20 new people whose approval they seek? As a more right-leaning individual on campus, I love when controversial topics are brought up, either in the classroom or common room. I believe that we have so much to learn from each other – especially when we disagree. However, Nickel and Dimed only reinforces the left-wing bias already present on campus. At a school like Williams, this book is not controversial – it preaches to the choir and demonizes those “heartless” non-liberals who are forced to bite their tongue during First Days.
Raphael Menko ’12 is a history and political economics major from Narberth, Penn. He lives in Milham.