Studying at Carolina

Teaching College Students that Cancer Is a Choice

21st Century WellnessWhat happens when a distinguished public university starts buying a canned wellness curriculum from a for-profit wellness venture? Well, in the case of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, you wake up to find that all your students are learning that cancer is a choice.

We wish we were making this up. But the text for this class – 21st Century Wellness – is one book that all UNC undergraduates must read. Inside the book, its authors define something they call diseases of choice.

Diseases of choice: Chronic disease conditions that are acquired in part due to lifestyle habits such as diet and physical activity. Diseases typically include some forms of cancer, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular diseases.

Elsewhere in the book they include dementia in that list.

Understandably Controversial

UNC student and health advocate Faith Anne Newsome offered us a bit of perspective:

I took the class the spring semester of my freshman year which would’ve been 2017. The LFIT [Lifetime Fitness] course as a whole has brought up a lot of controversy. Several eating disorder awareness groups have been advocating against the calorie counting assignment the class requires.

Embody Carolina is the primary organization that raised concerns about requiring undergraduates to count calories. Co-founder Colleen Daly considers this exercise to be the primary trigger for her eating disorder.

Skye Golann graduated from UNC this year. He told the News and Observer that he enjoyed the physical activities of the class. But he said the book was “beyond bad.” Laughably bad. It was so bad that he often found himself reading passages to his girlfriend that were “the craziest things he found in the book that week.” He said:

There’s an extreme emphasis on personal responsibility that pretty much explicitly blames people in poor health, which I thought was very problematic.

Speaking for the university, Abigail Painter told Newsweek:

Once the department of exercise and sport science received student feedback in the spring 2018 semester about those excerpts in the book, the department discussed those concerns with the publisher as part of an ongoing curriculum review process. Edits could not be made in time for use in the ongoing semester. As previously planned, the course material is currently under review for use this fall.

Easy and Profitable

The company behind this content, Perceivant, sells its pre-packaged content to 14 universities and aims to rapidly expand to 200 campuses. The company expects explosive sales growth because it targets faculty who can dictate that all students complete their programs.

This opportunity is even better than so-called voluntary corporate wellness programs. If a student wants to graduate, they must comply. Everything is canned, so it’s easy for the faculty. Auto-graded labs and self-assessments take little time. Running multiple course sections is easy. That’s what the Perceivant website says.

Of course, a university can adapt the materials. But that undercuts the promise of easy implementation.

In the final analysis, the biggest catch is this. We can find no validation to show that this program actually enhances a student’s well-being. Just anecdotes. And honestly, we can see some real downsides from telling people that they have no one to blame but themselves for chronic diseases they may have or may someday develop.

Laying a foundation for self-stigma does nobody any favors. Shame on you, UNC.

For more on this controversy, click here, here, and here. To download a sample chapter of this dubious curriculum, click here.

Studying at Carolina, photograph © ehpien / flickr

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August 1, 2018

One Response to “Teaching College Students that Cancer Is a Choice”

  1. August 01, 2018 at 12:45 pm, Adam Tsai said:

    Pretty disturbing. Seems like this deserves a letter to the editor in the local newspaper in Chapel Hill if there is anyone who lives in the area and who gets this daily e-mail from Ted.