This year’s required reading for incoming students at Brooklyn College, my alma mater, continues the practice of choosing a book that furthers the cause of victimology and anger. The book is Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, described by the Washington Post as “an investigation of a social wrong committed by the medical establishment, as well as the scientific and medical miracles to which it led.” Two years ago the required reading was How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America, Moustafa Bayoumi’s book depicting Arab Americans as targets of bias after 9/11. The book relied on false statistics and ended with anti-US and anti-Israel comments by its author. Last year’s book featured a Haitian victim of callous immigration policies and US imperialism, complete with a one-sided negative narrative of the US occupation of Haiti early in the 20th century.
All three books are also required readings at a great many US colleges, and are required discussion material for courses that most college students must take. This raises the central issue, once again, whether higher education is to breed critical thinking based on sound analysis or, instead, emotional appeals to victimhood against a cruel establishment.
Briefly, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is about cancer cells harvested from a poor black woman in 1951, cells that otherwise would have been routinely disposed of. Because of their exceptional metastasis, the cells have been used over succeeding decades to create breakthroughs in medical science, benefiting millions of people. The poor descendants and family of Henrietta Lacks feel they should profit, that they are exploited, and that they suffer from their lack of national healthcare.
Some facts need to be taken into consideration. Lacks did receive free medical care. Organs and cells such as hers would ordinarily be discarded. Medical researchers and companies invested huge sums in developing the cells and analyzing them. In a similar case at the California Supreme Court, it was held that the person from whom cells are harvested or their heirs are not entitled to recompense for later developments.
Will there be a critical examination of the book and the issues it raises or will it be discussed as a guide to students about the evils of US medicine and medical care? At Brooklyn College’s website, a Professor in the Brooklyn College Biology faculty extols the book in ideological ways. He says:
“This is a story of evil and good, poverty and wealth, selfishness and altruism, racism and love, capitalist exploitation and self-sacrifice….We see in this book the human cost of denied access to decent education and health care, and also the amorality of science and medical research.” Lacks’s daughter is described as “filled with psychological insights about how white elites functioned in a racist society.”
This is what so much assigned freshman reading is intended to do: accentuate the negative, encourage victimology.
Bruce Kesler served in the USMC, Intel, in Vietnam and at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He has published op-eds in, among others, the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and the San Diego Union-Tribune, and he blogs at Maggie’s Farm.