Obama’s Secret Weapon: Henrietta Lacks

Published August 19, 2013

National Review Online

How do America’s colleges and universities propagandize for President Obama? Very cleverly. That’s what I concluded after reading Beach Books: 2012-2013, a report released today by the National Association of Scholars (NAS). Since many colleges now give students a “common reading” assignment every summer, the NAS tracked these books at 309 schools.

With required courses in classic literature and the history of Western civilization a thing of the past, “common readings” have emerged as a substitute of sorts. The laudable goal is to build community by encouraging campus-wide conversations about a book read in common. Unfortunately, only eight of 309 colleges chose books published prior to 1990 as shared readings, with only four of those schools selecting bona fide classics.

So what sort of books nowadays receive the rare honor of being assigned to every student? Books that advance left-wing political narratives, of course, books on environmentalism, multiculturalism, Hurricane Katrina, social justice, urban poverty, alternative energy, and the war in Iraq.

The bias is obvious. The 2012 common reading at Miami University, for example, was Shade It Black: Death and After in Iraq, a book about the “brutal, sexist culture of the Marine Corps.” Yet many of today’s professors and college administrators are looking for something more specific than a sharp leftward push in whatever direction. They’re determined to make certain their students support President Obama on the most important and controversial political issue of the day, health-care reform.

How do colleges do that? Simple. They assign Rebecca Skloot’s 2010 best-seller,The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Skloot’s book isn’t about Obamacare per se. That’s the beauty of it. Instead, Henrietta Lacks is a gripping scientific and medical mystery-story, which also happens to be tale of racial discrimination and poverty in the Jim Crow South. The pathos of the book turns around a central injustice. Doctors took cancer cells from a poor, black Southern woman named Henrietta Lacks in the 1950s, without her permission. Those cells turned out to be uniquely reproducible (i.e. “eternal”), thereby launching a multimillion-dollar medical industry. Untold profits were made from those cells, yet neither Henrietta Lacks nor her descendants received compensation. Meanwhile, surviving family members are too poor to afford health insurance.

For two years running, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks has been by far the most widely assigned college common reading, years in which Obama’s reelection and political fate have turned on the fortunes of Obamacare. Coincidence?

Plenty of things make The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks attractive to colleges, of course. The book is by all accounts well-researched, engaging, and accessible, while the subject matter invites discussion across disciplines. Yet the fact that the story encourages students to filter their understanding of American life through the lens of health-care disparities rooted in Jim Crow bigotry is what makes it a grand-slam for the leftist professoriate. This spellbinding human-interest story and scientific mystery leaves readers apt to view America’s health-care system as a massively exploitative racist cabal. Perfect.

In its brief time in print, Skloot’s book has turned into a bit of an industry. Many schools have created their own study guides, as have Skloot and her publisher. The “Reading Group Guide” now appended to the paperback edition includes the question, “Do you feel the Lackses deserve health insurance even though they can’t afford it?”

That’s just the beginning. After reading an advance copy of the NAS “Beach Books” report, and noticing how disproportionately popular Henrietta Lacks was as a common reading assignment, I decided to dig up some college teaching and study guides for this book. Surprise. They eagerly link Henrietta Lacks to Obamacare.

Consider the University of Wisconsin Madison’s guide, which suggests the following question: “Making health care affordable to all Americans has been a recent political focus. What does the story of Henrietta Lacks and her family add to this discussion?” Well, it adds an emotional argument for Obamacare based on a single, hugely unrepresentative case, with no material that might suggest counter-arguments.

A Baltimore community college study guide poses this question: “Skloot writes on page 197 about the Black Panthers protesting a ‘racist health-care system’ back in 1976. Is our modern-day health-care system still racist? If not, what changed? If so, what needs to be done?” Let me guess. Support Obamacare?

Another guide makes the connection directly: “The Lacks family’s lack of health insurance can easily be developed into a project about the current healthcare crisis in America. President Obama’s plan can be investigated, as well as comparisons to other countries’ ways of providing healthcare.” Oh yes, the book easily suggests such a project.

A University of South Florida study guide poses this question: “Recent political discourse and controversy has surrounded the issue of affordable healthcare in the United States. How do the story of Henrietta Lacks and her family impact this issue? . . . Do you think this book makes a case for universal healthcare?” I do, a thoroughly loaded and incomplete case, but a case nonetheless.

The official Random House study guide follows an observation with a question: “In a profit-driven health care system, all citizens do not have equal access to the treatments and medications made possible by tissue and cell research. What are the intended and unintended consequences of a profit-driven health care system?” Nothing this outlier case does much to illuminate.

One of the richer web-hubs for study guides to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks offers a specimen mini-course built around the book. Here’s a bit of the description: “Students will learn to decenter the power of white privilege to stand absolute by critiquing its dominance. In constructing this decentering critical sociology of health disparities, students will challenge reified power relations or what they have been previously and unquestioningly taken-for-granted, and replace them with some alternative knowledges or thinking. As a result, students will unpack some of the ‘theoretical-practical-existential significances’ of the counter-stories in their own intellectual lives thereby validating the viability of their own thinking to upstage some of the professed valid standpoints (“truth”) of the totalizing, but oppressive white Other.” Sounds like an interesting class.

Students who’ve read only The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks are in no position to make an independent judgment on the strengths and weaknesses of Obamacare. That, of course, is the point. No sense giving them both sides. Anyway, an openly partisan book on the topic of healthcare reform might be too difficult for many colleges to assign. After all, the NAS report indicates that the great majority of schools that make Henrietta Lacks their common reading assignment are public universities. Republicans governors or state legislators might complain about open Obama boosterism. But this book says nothing about Obamacare. It’s all in how you teach it. Clever.

It’s not just colleges. Henrietta Lacks is widely assigned in high schools as well. The NAS Report notes a link between the decline of classic fiction in college common readings and the trend in K-12 education created by the controversial new Common Core, our emerging de facto national curriculum (strongly pushed by Obama). The Common Core presses K-12 teachers to reduce assignments from classic literature and replace them with nonfiction “informational texts.” Henrietta Lacks fits right in to the Common Core’s new emphasis, and helps explain the change. By switching out literary classics and replacing them with current non-fiction, the road to politicization is greatly widened.

So the rapid rise of Henrietta Lacks in our K-12 and higher education systems is a sign of the times. Assignments are now being dictated by this year’s politics, rather than life’s enduring alternatives. For many of America’s educators, helping Obama transform America is priority one.

It’s working. Young people are growing into a world in which the fundamental social, political, and intellectual alternatives are invisible, while the approved political path is as taken-for-granted as air. The Millennials gave Obama his edge, andHenrietta Lacks and her literary compatriots help explain why.

Conservatives look to the culture momentarily after an election loss. Yet attention soon lags, while the young slip further away. Fortunately, this generation can be reached. We ought to be focusing more on the battle over the Common Core, and doing more as well to support organizations like the NAS. Reports like “Beach Books” and the controversies they raise, can’t easily transform the tenured professoriate. Yet they can give students the message that they are being cheatedout of something precious: the opportunity to understand the true choices before them, including the strengths and weaknesses of the doctrines they themselves profess.

For conservatives, reaching over the heads of politicized teachers and going directly to students and their parents ought to be our next common assignment.

Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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