Well, here we have another ludicrous reaction of college students to their academic assignments, refusing to engage because the assignment might bruise their tender feelings. It so happens that Duke University assigns first-year students a book to read in the summer before they begin college. It’s a common practice in U.S. universities, and a good one, although all too often the books are pabulum: moral tracts that provide politically correct lessons. Duke, however, did something unusual, and good: it assigned incoming freshman the acclaimed book Fun Home, a graphic (i.e., drawn) memoir by Alison Bechdel. The interesting thing is that the book deals with controversial subjects—just the thing you want students to read and discuss when they get to college. It’s fodder for lots of interesting (albeit animated) talks and thoughts. Here’s Wikipedia’s description:
Fun Home, subtitled A Family Tragicomic, is a 2006 graphic memoir by the American writer Alison Bechdel, author of the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. It chronicles the author’s childhood and youth in rural Pennsylvania, United States, focusing on her complex relationship with her father. The book addresses themes of sexual orientation, gender roles, suicide, emotional abuse, dysfunctional family life, and the role of literature in understanding oneself and one’s family. Writing and illustrating Fun Home took seven years, in part because of Bechdel’s laborious artistic process, which includes photographing herself in poses for each human figure. Fun Home has been both a popular and critical success, and spent two weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list. In The New York Times Sunday Book Review, Sean Wilsey called it “a pioneering work, pushing two genres (comics and memoir) in multiple new directions.” Several publications named Fun Home as one of the best books of 2006; it was also included in several lists of the best books of the 2000s. It was nominated for several awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award and three Eisner Awards(one of which it won). A French translation of Fun Home was serialized in the newspaper Libération; the book was an official selection of the Angoulême International Comics Festival and has been the subject of an academic conference in France. Fun Home has been the subject of numerous academic publications in areas such as biography studies and cultural studies, as part of a larger turn towards serious academic investment in the study of comics/sequential art.
As Duke’s student newspaper, the Duke Chronicle, wrote on June 8, the book was chosen by Duke’s “Common Experience Selection Committee,” a group made up of students, faculty and staff.
I was hesitant at first to support it as a welcoming text to Duke University,” said junior Ibanca Anand, a committee member. “Then I realized how critical these discussions are for so many of us, and it’s important that we establish this school as a place that is open and unafraid to talk about things that affect people.”
Anand is absolutely right here, and far more mature than many incoming students. The Chronicle article goes on:
Members of the selection committee noted that some may perceive the book as controversial because it contains nudity and sex and delves into tough topics. “Parents may have more issues with the book than incoming students, who for the most part have been exposed to these difficult issues as a part of their education,” wrote Simon Partner, professor of history and director of the Asian/Pacific Studies Institute, in an email. Anand said she has only heard enthusiastic support from those who have read the book. “Fervent activism and standing up for what we believe is right has become a crucial part of Duke’s identity, and ‘Fun Home’ fits right in with all of this,” she said.
Well, that was before the assignment went out! Now the university is receiving pushback from some Christian students who absolutely refuse to read Fun House because it offends their Christian values (see the BBC post on this as well).
Fun Home is an award-winning, New York Times best-selling graphic novel and memoir that was adapted for the theatre and recently won five Tonys, including the coveted Tony Award for Best Musical. The book and the Broadway show both deal with the very personal, challenging, and emotional issues of its author, Alison Bechdel, including growing up, discovering she is a lesbian, and learning her father, who commits suicide, was gay. The book was assigned to incoming Duke University freshmen as part of their summer reading list, but as Claire the BBC post on thisentine at The Chronicle, Duke’s student newspaper, reports, several Christian students strongly objected to the book and refused to read it, citing their deeply-held religious beliefs.
“I feel as if I would have to compromise my personal Christian moral beliefs to read it,” Brian Grasso wrote on the Duke University Class of 2019 Facebook page, a closed group. He cited its “graphic visual depictions of sexuality,” as part of his reason. “Duke did not seem to have people like me in mind,” he added. “It was like Duke didn’t know we existed, which surprises me.” “There is so much pressure on Duke students, and they want so badly to fit in,” Grasso observed. “But at the end of the day, we don’t have to read the book.” Grasso was not alone in his protest. “The nature of ‘Fun Home’ means that content that I might have consented to read in print now violates my conscience due to its pornographic nature,” Jeffrey Wubbenhorst wrote in an email to The Chronicle.
This is pathetic. Those students are not only keeping themselves in the religious bubble in which they’ve been raised, but cutting themselves off from exposure to ideas that might help not only them, but society as well. I’m convinced that one of the reasons that gay rights, for instance, progressed so fast in this nation is that people not only listened to what gay people said, but got to know them, and saw (as they eventually will with atheists), that they were just normal people who deserved equal treatment. This, at least, is one of Steve Pinker’s theses, in The Better Angels of our Nature, for the moral progress we’ve seen over the last five centures. Exposure, exposure, exposure!
Reporter Caitlin Dickson interviewed me and others (including Greg Lukianoff, head of FIRE), about this issue for Yahoo News, and here’s my take, echoing the above sentiments:
Jerry Coyne, a professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago, said Schoenfeld’s statement indicated why books like “Fun Home” are exactly what college kids should be reading.
“It exemplifies the fact that one person’s comforting literature is another person’s challenging literature,” said Coyne, who warned that trigger warnings would lead to literary fascism at The New Republic earlier this year.
“My first reaction was, it’s great that Duke is trying to challenge student viewpoints by giving them controversial books,” Coyne told Yahoo News. “There’s no way to find a book that at the same time inspires discussion and does not challenge students’ viewpoints.”
But by refusing to take accept these challenges, Coyne said, students “are doing themselves a great disservice.”
“College is the time when kids are supposed to get out of their bubble, the first time they’re thrown into a diverse group of people who can open their minds or challenge their minds,” Coyne said. “When these students say, ‘We’re not going to read this book,’ they’re closing themselves off from what college is supposed to be, the one time in your life when you can freely challenge people’s opinions.”
Coyne echoed Lukianoff’s sentiment that the Duke case is an illustration of “a growing movement among students who take offense too easily to things that challenge them intellectually and socially.”
“To progress in society, we have to hear other viewpoints,” Coyne said. “We may object to them, but we have to hear them. These kids are plugging their ears.”
The whole irony of this issue is summed up in a statement by Michael Schoenfeld, Duke’s Vice President for Public Affairs and Government Relations: “with a class of 1,750 new students from around the world, it would be impossible to find a single book that that did not challenge someone’s way of thinking”.
Indeed. And is the goal to even find a book that doesn’t challenge everyone’s way of thinking? What good is such a book? If that’s the goal, let them choose the old chestnut, a great book but one that no longer challenges people’s attitudes: To Kill A Mockingbird. On second thought, that wouldn’t be suitable, either, for it’s about rape.
Besides, if I, an atheist, can read theology, which is far more injurious to the brain than reading about lesbians and nudity, then these fragile religious snowflakes can read about sexuality. They need to prepare themselves for immersion in the real world.