Closed minds in the Class of 2019

A group of first-year students at Duke University is having a major hissy fit because their school has suggested they read a book that—wait for it—may contain content at odds with their values. According to various articles, including one from BBC News, the students object to reading Fun Home, Alison Bechdel’s celebrated graphic autobiographical novel, because it undermines their religious beliefs.

The book, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and spawned a Tony-winning play, deals with the theme of coming to terms with being gay. Like many other worthwhile books, it discusses sexual matters and, being a graphic novel, it illustrates what it discusses.

Uh-oh.

“I feel as if I would have to compromise my personal Christian moral beliefs to read it,” the article quotes one student as saying.

You poor thing. Are your beliefs in one book so shaky that they will be compromised by reading another book? And how do you know, if you’re refusing to read it? Writing in Salon, Paula Young Lee suggests that you must have peeked, but I’m not so sure. I’ll bet the rumor of cartoon depictions of nudity suffices. Especially if the cartoons depict—and are drawn by—a member of the LGBT community.

From the BBC article: “Other students called the graphic novel, which inspired a Tony-winning musical, ‘pornographic.’”

Oh, the horror of it.

Keep in mind that this is not Bob Jones or Liberty or some other third-rate “Christian” institution where bigotry is business as usual. Nor is it an honorable second-rate school like the College of Charleston, which saw its budget cut by more than $50,000 by South Carolina legislators upset that the college had assigned the book. This is Duke, an Ivy League wannabe, supposedly one of America’s most prestigious universities.

One might suppose Duke to be a place where free inquiry is not only encouraged but expected, where core beliefs are deliberately challenged on a frequent basis, where students are routinely required to delve deeply into various topics that may make them uncomfortable. After all, that’s the way actual learning happens. Not at many religious schools or in most home school curricula, perhaps, but note: I said actual learning. You know, the kind that involves learning to think critically.

Okay, so maybe it’s understandable that frosh might be unaware of what’s expected of them by their college or university; one must excuse ignorance among newbies. What’s less easy to understand is the university’s failure to make its expectations crystal clear. This could have been used as a teaching opportunity, with parallels drawn to any number of great thinkers whose inquiries necessarily exceeded the bounds of propriety drawn by their culture. (Galileo comes to mind. I wonder if the students in question know who he was.) Instead, the university’s response comes across as lukewarm at best, with almost sheepish undertones.

A Duke official makes a point of noting that the assignment is voluntary and that “it would be impossible to find a single book that that did not challenge someone’s way of thinking.” Well, yes. One supposes that many students might feel challenged by certain passages in the Bible—some of the prescriptive ones that appear to condone rape, for instance. But the Bible is important, both as a great work of literature and as a pivotal element in the development of Western civilization, so students damn well should be expected to read it irrespective of its impact on their comfort level. They also ought to read Leaves of Grass and “Howl” and Huckleberry Finn and The Color Purple while they’re at it. An English professor at the University of Utah, where assignment of the book also sparked controversy, said, “If we try to only choose . . . the novels that have a moral point of view that we agree with, we might not have a whole lot of literature to teach.”

Well, duh.

Can anyone—even a sheltered, home-schooled 18-year-old—really doubt that? Have the students who are objecting to the book even stopped to think about it? Does their religion permit them to consider such things?

What’s next . . . before going off to college, students submitting lists of works that have been sanctioned by their pastors as non-injurious to impressionable Christian minds? (Maybe James Dobson would do the honors.) Boycotting Medieval history lectures because of awkward references to the Crusades? Refusing to register for biology courses because they might encounter Darwin and learn what the word theory means or astronomy courses because they’re based on the premise that the universe’s age in years has way too many zeros in it?

One might hope that the experience of reading Fun Home would broaden the horizons of these students, allowing them to recognize that the world beyond their own little bubbles is interesting enough that it’s worth examining regardless of whether one ultimately approves or disapproves of some of what one finds there. Unfortunately, that seems unlikely to happen unless the university’s powers that be let their new enrollees know in no uncertain terms that they will be required to read (consider, discuss, and write about) things that make them uncomfortable. And, if Duke really is all it professes to be, its officials ought to tell the students that if they don’t like that, then they’ve enrolled at the wrong school. Because higher education is supposed to be about compelling people to confront their ignorance, and helping them overcome it, not letting them off the hook with optional “assignments.”

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