More fragile student feelings: Christian students refuse to read Duke’s summer-assignment novel because (horrors) it deals with lesbians and other touchy subjects

August 26, 2015 • 10:00 am

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 2000sIt 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.

h/t: Lynn

148 thoughts on “More fragile student feelings: Christian students refuse to read Duke’s summer-assignment novel because (horrors) it deals with lesbians and other touchy subjects

  1. “Pathetic” is right! The thing about education, dear freshmen, is that it makes it hard for you to cling onto your ignorance. That is what it is FOR.

  2. these fragile religious snowflakes can read about sexuality. They need to prepare themselves for immersion in the real world.


    Ssshhh. I’d rather they didn’t. It’s bad for my STD/HIV network studies if too many young people are successfully avoiding these diseases.

  3. Why would you go to college if the first thing you do when you get there is to deny education? College should treat this type of refusal to learn as any other exam failure, after all, that is what is going on, some students are just failing their very first test!

    1. Exactly. If they don’t like it, they can go to Liberty, and give up their Duke place to someone who will appreciate it.

  4. It was made into a Broadway play, and a song from it was recently shown on Seth Myers. I don’t know if it was because I was tired, but it really brought me tears of joy.

  5. How about they try ‘Alice in Wonderland’. That’s pretty sex free!

    Then again, rabbits find it offensive, as do small people….

    1. Nope. Drug use in that story. Alice drinks a potion that causes hallucinations. And then there is that caterpillar…

      1. If I remember right, she ate some cake that made her get very big. I keep getting spam about how, if I buy and swallow these certain pills, I’ll get very big….


        1. One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small. But the ones the internet gives you don’t do anything at all. Go ask Alice. (Or Grace, or “The White Rabbit.”)

  6. “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.

    The proper response is, then, this: read it, and in Freshman discussion class, you point out that it’s pornographic and compromises some people’s values. Then you explain why, and have a discussion about whether, when, and how it might be ethical and appropriate for teachers to have students read material they find morally or personally objectionable.

    IOW, the proper response is to argue your point rather than refusing to engage.

    1. Exactly. That’s why I agree with what Nicholas said above.
      These students have failed their first university exam. They refused to engage in the education process.

      And if people on “modern campuses” refuse to engage with ideas different from theirs, they too are failing at the process.

  7. I suppose this assignment was part of an entry level course that all incoming freshmen are to take, and that this assignment is worth a certain % of their grade in that course. So these students will get a 0 on this assignment.
    When the dust settles it may simply come down to that, provided that the faculty and administration stick to their principles and not cave in to pressure.

    1. Do students sign some sort of “honor (code)” document, promising to read the book? Do they have to write a three-five page “book report”? Do they have to take some sort of graded test on the book? How much if any does it affect their over all GPA? Do they have to participate in some sort of day-long symposium/colloquium, and be actively observed to see if they sufficiently participate in discussion (much as a righteous Big Brother” at a private sectarian college monitors students to determine rather they attend the requisite number of chapels)?

      I’d like to see a list of past such book assignments. Wonder if Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens (and Paine, Orwell, Emerson and Thoreau, for that matter) are represented?

  8. Jesus, this kid is such a prick. Ten to one he’ll be an avid (closeted!) consumer of lesbian pr0n before the semester is out, if he isn’t already.

    I’m sure he’s getting a pretty serious hard-on, too, thinking that he’s demonstrating himself to be the moral superior of all the other students by placing his passionate love of Jesus above everything else and thereby erecting himself above the dirtiness of the vulgar world. In reality, of course…he’s just demonstrating that he’s a class-A prick, and that Christianity is the club for class-A pricks.


    1. I’d be shocked if he has never actually done an Internet search for lesbian porn comics. Maybe it’s lesbian porn comics with literary value that he’s having a hard time with.

      1. Google search ‘lesbian + porn + comics’ – 14.7 million. ‘lesbian porn comics with literary value’ – 531,000.

        So, about the same ratio as ordinary literature. 😉


        (I’m aware of the deficiencies in my search technique!)

  9. …To Kill A Mockingbird. On second thought, that wouldn’t be suitable, either, for it’s about rape…

    Not to mention all the closeted Tom Ewells in the frat houses and dormitories along Tobacco Road who might find Mockingbird offensive to their kith and kin, to their proud Jim Crow heritage.

    1. …er, that’s “Bob Ewell,” the Mockingbird villain. Tom Ewell was an old-time Hollywood character actor.

    2. The book also uses the word ‘nigger’ several times, which would certainly disqualify it. Never mind that it could lead to discussion of how educated whites rarely use the word today, but does this mean that there has a real underlying change in racist attitudes?

  10. How much of this is rooted in the home-schooling movement? Seems about the right time for a critical mass of these types to be entering univeristy.

    I have family members deep into that stuff. They didn’t want to be part of the give-and-take of the larger culture so they went off and made their own “pure” culture.

    Now they want to participate in the upper levels of the general culture they abandoned, except they refuse to participate. And they still want their degrees.

    1. The what the f*ck are they doing going to a secular university like Duke? Try Liberty, Regent,or Bob Jones where one will definitely not be required to read such a book.

  11. How can you be offended by something you haven’t read ? Someone has to read the book first then be offended , then tell others not to read it, and they have to believe what they are told – I suppose !! . OH wait a minute Christians do that all the time !! However the Bible ontains some pretty offensive stuff and gory details of a man called God who did some unspeakable things to humans (allegedly).

      1. And at least this book works up to the nudity, and it’s in context. The Bible has it on the first page, satisfying God’s voyeurism, and before you know it, he’s ordering them to go forth and multiply, a great deal of which seems to occur via incest and rape.

  12. Those kids might as well say, “I self identify as a bigot & I don’t want to expose myself to anything that would change my bigoted ways.” Which is fine if that’s what you want to be – but you shouldn’t take up space in university. There are lots of others who are interested in actually learning something in university.

    I’ve said here before that it was reading poetry written my lesbians when I took my English degree, that opened my eyes to what it’s like to live in the world as a lesbian and be viewed in a certain way and how that affects your whole self. What a shame these students won’t get to understand that.

  13. I am going to toss in a contrarian view here. It would be one thing to react this way if the book was actually intended to spur conversation and if honest conversation would be allowed. But will it be? Or will students from fundie backgrounds be *punished* if they express dismay, disgust, disapproval? Because I think it’s more likely they’ll be punished, that anything they say will have a giant TRIGGER WARNING metaphorically stamped on it, and that there will complaints lodged against them.

    1. That’s an interesting point. It illustrates the intersectionality of ideologues – censors of left and right meeting on the far side of the circle from “small l” liberalism.

    2. Allow me to be another contrarian. I don’t know the level of explicitness here, but it’s a _graphic novel_–i.e., there are drawn illustrations. Depending on the level of explicitness, I think a reader would have a good point in requesting an alternate assignment. Here’s what I said in another forum:

      “I think there’s a bit of overreaction, here, folks. Given that the novel is a graphic novel, I think this guy is within his rights to ask for an alternative assignment.

      “Just because most of us think that religion is BS doesn’t mean we have to be a bunch of pricks about rubbing stuff into his face. Suppose the complainant was your grandmother who decided to finish college?

      “Edit: Further, this guy’s a frosch. Most of us are looking at the world through much older eyes.

      “Edit2: And furthermore, some frosches are under 18. Presenting such a volume to a person under 18 (21 in some places) could be considered providing porn to a minor. I think the piece does not belong in a 100-level class. Too much hassle.”

      End of insertion. I don’t have money to just throw away, so I’m not buying the novel to inspect it. If the illos are explicit, I stand by what I said. If the illos are in the nature of the L-shaped sheet shown in TV dramas at 10 p.m., then I’ll tend to lean toward the other folks’ opinions here.

      1. If the illos are explicit, I stand by what I said. If the illos are in the nature of the L-shaped sheet shown in TV dramas at 10 p.m., then I’ll tend to lean toward the other folks’ opinions here.

        Sorry, but I don’t see how that can be at all relevant.

        This is college we’re discussing, and a rather respectable one at that. Students will reasonably be expected to not only confront full nudity in the art department, but nudity plus physiology in the biology department and nudity plus emotional dimensions in the psychology department. And chances are superlative that they’ll be getting first-person experience with the subject themselves — and it’s guaranteed that, even if they themselves abstain, the majority of their peers won’t. And those who abstain can pretty much be counted on to seek out pr0n for themselves, or at least “stumble upon” it in somebody else’s dorm room.

        There’s no case to be made for prudishness here. If the kids can’t handle an adult conversation about this book, they have no business being on that campus in the first place.


        1. a quibble here: if this is a lesbian illustration, would not an L-shaped sheet, if what the internet tells me an L-shaped sheet is, be useless if you’re trying to cover both sets of boobs??

          1. I had to Google that.

            And I snort in amusement whenever a couple, having just had (presumably) wild passionate sex, then have to carefully arrange the sheets to preserve their modesty from any random snooper with a spy camera who unaccountably missed the main event.


  14. Times do change. I attended a Catholic High School years ago (in a previous life). One of our assigned books, perhaps surprisingly in today’s climate, was The Catcher in the Rye. I wonder if it could be assigned in today’s colleges without some contrarian fanfare? Either “They need to prepare themselves for immersion in the real world.” or join a cult of like minded people and construct a permanent bubble, bidirectionally impermeable at best.

  15. Whatever weak-tea leftist sympathies they may harbor, the original offense-and-insult mongers on campus will come to realize that, if the new sensitivity protects Wahhabist Muslims and fundamentalist Christians, it protects neo-Confederates and the National Front, too. This thing is going to come back on them in ugly ways they never imagined.

  16. I would have flunked the student. Then I would have asked if anyone else had trouble with the book, and flunked anyone who raised their hand. Then I would have begun reading the book aloud and kept going right past the end of the period, and if anyone got up to leave I’d have said “THE STORY ISN’T FINISHED YET,” and flunked them.

    1. Bit of a leap I know, but that reminds me a bit of the video of when Saddam Hussein took over the Ba’ath party, or the scene in Shogun when Toronaga did something similar.

      You can’t force someone to not be a bigot – they have to work it out for themselves. Talk about what it is they find offensive and why, and bring other points of view to their attention etc.

    2. I’d get up to leave at the end of the period, regardless of the book’s content. The period is assigned for study of the book. The following time is not.

      And I can read a book twice as fast myself as listening to some wally trying to read it aloud, without discussion or trying to derive any point from it.


    1. In Grasso’s own words:

      But in the Bible, Jesus forbids his followers from exposing themselves to anything pornographic. “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart,” he says in Matthew 5:28-29. “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away.” This theme is reiterated by Paul who warns, “flee from sexual immorality.”

      And, yet, he still has both his eyes. The only way I’ll believe that he’s never looked at a woman lustfully is if he’s purely gay — in which case he’s got insane levels of other problems and I might actually feel sorry for him.

      Sorry, Brian. Get back to us after you’ve gouged out your eyes, and maybe we’ll talk. Until then, you’re just a lame poseur who clearly doesn’t believe a word of what Jesus said, even when you quote him. And you call yourself a Christian!?


          1. Yeah but really, considered as porn, it (Song of Solomon) is just not very good. You’ll find better in the Letters to the Editor section of any randomly-selected decades-old copy of Playboy.

            (And the other articles will be much better written too).


            1. Oh, well, if we’re going to add the consideration of quality to the discussion…well, unless you’re going for ironic or some other inversion, I can’t think of a single example from the Bible that deserves being classified as good quality. “The Flood was a quality example of cruel and insane global destruction.”


      1. “Get back to us after you’ve gouged out your eyes, and maybe we’ll talk.”

        Ironic. What your saying, with apparent animus, is “I don’t want to hear what you have to say.”

        That’ll learn him!

        1. No, I’ve heard what he has to say. And he’s spouting nonsense and contradicting himself.

          If he wants me to take him seriously, he’ll have to demonstrate his bona fides. And following the instructions of Jesus that he himself saw fit to quote would be a great start. Else, he’s just yet another hypocrite, like all other Christians, with nothing of value to say — yet that never stops them from saying it, over and over and over again….


          1. Yes. How does he know that reading this graphic novel will make him react “lustfully” unless he’s imagined just that. Poor kid has been taught to be terrified of his own body’s natural reactions. Once again, someone has been screwed up by religion.

      2. The next verse of Matthew after the ones cited by Grasso says that if you whack-off with your right hand, you should whack it off. (I paraphrase slightly.) Wonder if he had to type his bitch-fest to Duke left-handed…

        1. I don’t read it that way.

          “And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off”

          If my right hand succeeds in its efforts, why would that offend me? More likely I will be highly pleased with it. Good right hand. Well done. Do it again tomorrow.

          And if it fails, well it’s useful for all sorts of other things, cutting it off would be just stupid.

          Just another example of the Bibble saying the opposite of what it means and ending up with nonsense anyway, I guess.


  17. About 40 years ago I had a student who would not read the 1958 Tjio and Levan paper establishing the human chromosome number as 46 because the cells used were from an aborted fetus.

    1. I won’t ask how that student handled Mein Kampf or The Communist Manifesto. Did he refuse to read Solzhenitsyn and Elie Wiesel because atrocities were made use of in the creation of their books?

  18. These protests should be taken with the same seriousness that would be afforded astrology fans’ complaints over the study of astronomy.

  19. To be fair, if I’d wanted to learn about dysfunctional families, I would have stayed home, and not gone to college. But, seriously, as Matthew says, “What went ye out into the wilderness to see? …A man clothed in soft raiment?”

  20. Why on Earth do universities feel that they need to assign a book to be read? Part of the interview that got me into university was about checking that I actually had already read some stimulating literature.

    1. Seems to me it’s meant as the same sort of “icebreaking” exercise as party games. You’re throwing all these strangers at each other who might or might not have any social skills and / or anything in common; but, if they both know they just read the same book, they can at least talk about that.


      1. Also that one can assume it as read (to some degree) in freshman English or what not. It is a great difficulty these days with *so* much variation in what is read in high schools – to say nothing of foreign students with less background – to have something one can *reference*. At CMU, when I was a graduate student in logic, one professor I had kept referring to Eco’s novels, which I am semi-embarassed to way I *still* haven’t read. Cultural literacy is a thing, etc. (Also basic science literacy: assigning a good popular piece of science, or its history or philosophy, might be useful for the same reason.) Consider it “frontloading” for the semester; an ambitious and elite school I think should be free to do this, to a point.

    2. I think you’ve hit upon a central issue of upper education in Americur. If there was some kind of requirement that incoming freshmen had read a book… ANY book… the entire system would go bankrupt.

  21. That Brian Grasso guy has or will have Grindr on his phone .. I guarantee it. I dont know why people say the stuff like that – that it offends them.. if it really offends them that is because it bothers them and it bothers them because well.. it gets them bothered.. they can not handle the feeling inside for that lifestyle.

  22. “Duke did not seem to have people like me in mind,” he added

    He’s probably correct in this assessment. I understand Duke to be thing called a “University”, which is to say a place where students learn new things about the World. If you don’t want to do that, you do not belong in Duke or any other place of learning.

    1. Can one no less reasonably say the same about Algebra II in high school? It certainly falls under the category of learning new things about the world,” eh? But there are a lot of algebra-phobic humanities types who don’t think all high school students should have to take that much algebra. (I’m an algebra nut, BTW.)

  23. For me, this is having echoes of the 60s, when students were clamoring to dictate what they were to be taught. Everything had to be “relevant”. It is an odd kind of arrogance to tell professors what they allowed to teach you when you basically don’t know what you’re talking about. This seems to me a corollary of that.

    1. Seems one would have to include politicians under the “basically don’t know what you’re talking about” heading. And also MBA/JD Trumpesque/Romneyesque private corporate tyrant types who consider Ph.D. “STEM” types their handmaidens.

    2. You may have a stilted view of what happened in the Sixties. (I wasn’t on campus then, but I was watching intently from the sidelines in junior high and high school.)

      The Sixties protests were about opening the classrooms, and campuses, and universities up. This is about the opposite — putting the educational fetters back on and cranking them tight.

      1. But the principle is the same–deciding what you choose to learn before you are taught it. BTW, I spent the decade of the 60s as a student at 3 different universities and remember the period very well.

        1. The only common element between then and now is that students are asserting themselves in some way. The student-activists then were confronting authority, taking risks, bucking the status quo. Students now are being coddled by administrators and faculty, treated as preferred consumers, patrons for whom every bump in the road must be made smooth. They shun risk and upset, or even fresh ideas that might challenge their preconceptions.

          In the Sixties. new spectra of thought and political activity were brought on campus; at students’ urging, people of achievement from outside the mainstream were invited to speak — Muhammad Ali, the Berrigan brothers, Betty Friedan, Angela Davis, Dr. Spock, Ralph Nader, the list could go on and on. Today, students demand that speakers who might say anything controversial, who might inadvertently give offense, who might ruffle the feathers of any of the numerous interest groups on campus, be disinvited from appearing.

          Without the student-activists of the Sixties, campuses would have remained mired in Fifties conformity — white bucks & blue blazers, curfews & chaperones, locked dormitories (sometimes even sequestered campuses) for women. Sure, students back then broke a few windows (hell, Johnson & Nixon were in the White House; the draft and Vietnam War were raging), but they let in much fresh air in doing so. They had to face down bully-boy administrators and regents who had no stomach for student free-speech. Thanks to them, our campuses — as to student-body composition, as to permitted speech and political activity, as to the curriculum itself — went from monochromatic to multihued.

          By contrast, today’s university students are mired in a new conformity, a prevailing orthodoxy where sensitivity and “feelings” reign, cloistered in their offense-free zones and hermetically sealed safe spaces. They blanch at the first sign of political incorrectness; they insist on being warned of classroom topics that could make them uncomfortable, demand to be excused from any activity, even reading the classics, that might “diminish their personhood.” For crying out loud, they file Title IX complaints against professors who broach a verboten subject even to offer criticism of it.

          And worst of all, they have no sense of humor about any of it. Where have you gone Mario Savio, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

          You may have attended three universities during the Sixties, Sarah; doesn’t mean you were ever really there.

          1. That is why I said it was a corollary. The 60s were also a time of arson attacks on libraries, abolishing foreign-language requirements, an abdication of academic standards, and “non-negotiable demands”. Many university administrators caved in to student demands to keep the peace, regardless of any long-term damage. At the time someone said it was like soldiers preparing for battle and starting by trashing their army base. Don’t worry, Ken, I was there.

    3. And there *is* a good compromise. Senior students and graduate students should be able to have *some* flexibility to work with faculty on topics of their interest in class and not just for theses, at least in some fields. I was not interested in the topic or at that level, but one year some students at McGill approached one of our philosophy professors and asked if he’d do a seminar with them on Merleau-Ponty, figuring it hadn’t been done and there was background etc. available. He was (apparently) happy to oblige, despite not knowing much on the figure either! Structure and such were more left to the faculty, of course. (For example, students did not assign their own grades!)

      1. That seems perfectly reasonable, but I was referring to students flatly refusing to take this or that required course for whatever spurious reason. For advanced students to suggest a particular line of enquiry and get up a seminar for it is quite different.

  24. Duke should have responded with a letter saying you might be more comfortable at Liberty or Bob Jones U., so we suggest you apply there.

  25. Education is a funny old commodity for sure. You pay a lot for it, you don’t know what it is until you have it, you can’t test drive it first and take it back if you don’t want it, by the time you’ve got it you aren’t the same person anyway.

  26. The fact is, he has not got the conviction and fortitude of his belief to get himself through a book! A wimp I believe is what he is.
    Where the temptation would take him is up for mirth and spectulation but it does not bode well.. he needs something metaphorically in the crutch to wake up.
    Hopefully he says, LIFE will come to his aid.

  27. I don’t usually comment on these types of issues but I’ve grown extremely tired of the nasty potshots I see being directed at young people with a religious upbringing. I grew up in a very strict religious household. I wasn’t allowed to dance, play cards, go to the movies, listen to “teenage music”, drink alcohol, use profanity, or dress immodestly.

    My parents surrounded themselves with people who shared their beliefs. I was required to submit a note to my gym teacher stating that I wasn’t allowed to participate in the square dancing in gym class. My parents did not allow me to go on a school trip to the movie theater to watch “Romeo & Juliet” when I was a freshman in high school, but they insisted that I go to school the day of the outing and sit by myself to be a good Christian role model. I gained a reputation of being that weird kid who wasn’t allowed to do anything fun. It led to isolation from social interactions with my peers and left me ill prepared for the real world.

    If my parents had ever shown me any love or concern, I would have clung to them and their religious teachings as my only source of support. Fortunately for me, my parents were verbally and physically abusive which made their claim that “Jesus loves you.” seem hypocritical. I was a closet atheist long before I knew there are other people in this world who don’t believe in gods.

    In the households of the families who shared my parents’ strong beliefs but where love was in abundance, the children accepted their parents’ beliefs without question. As my parents attended a small Bible college for 3 years (starting when I was 8 years old,) I was surrounded by these people. I didn’t fit in with my peers in this environment either because I knew I was secretly questioning the existence of God and the veracity of the Bible.

    So, this is what I have to say – Stop hurling insults about young people with strong religious beliefs based on one data point because:

    1) If they’ve grown up like me, my parents would have forced me to make a public stand against reading the book so they could be sure I had already established a reputation for being a devoutly religious kid who would not be led astray.

    2) If they’ve grown up like many of the kids I knew while my parents attended Bible college, they have not yet had any reason to question or challenge their parents’ religious beliefs. Their household has been filled with love and support and they have have been told on a regular basis that God has guided their parents actions – actions which are not inconsistent with the notion of a loving god.

    Save your nastiness for people who are more deserving. I despised my parents because they were so cruel. Their cruelty was what made me question their religious teaching. IMO, it’s ill-advised to give young people a reason to reject a particular point of view because the people expressing that point of view are being cruel while doing so. Give young people a reason to listen. Don’t push them away with ugly behavior.

    1. Interesting parallels to my own Catholic upbringing.

      In my case it was the misogyny, homophobia and the general undercurrent of bigotry that drove me away.

      Given that it was your parents “verbally and physically abusive” “ugly behavior” that drove you away from religion, would this not work the same way for the students in the article ?

      Not that I recommend or countenance abusive behavior, but why not employ all the tools used for discourse (irony, satire, debate and so on) in the marketplace of ideas ?

      It’s not as if commenters are forcing their way into these students homes and spewing invective at them, these students have taken a public position with respect to the curriculum of the university so why should they not expect some sort of reaction ?

      Anyway, thanks for the thoughtful comment, it made me think about the intersection of religion with secular society and how to best deal with this.

      1. My father was an Old Testament, fire and brimstone minister. I got to learn all about God’s misogyny, homophobia, and bigotry. It made me realize that my parents were not behaving in a way that God would disapprove of. I despised God as well as my parents. I thought he was a cruel, intolerant bastard. (God is definitely a man because women were put on this earth to serve men. My parents made that very clear. 🙂

        I know that the comments here are not being made directly to these “fragile religious snowflakes” but unlike me, these religious snowflakes are growing up in the age of the internet and, therefore, have the ability to do a search and read the discussion going on about this issue outside of the community in which they live. Comments like “Jesus this kid is such a prick.” are nothing more than nasty insult and add nothing to the discussion. Furthermore, suggestions that these kids should just attend colleges like Bob Jones or Liberty rather implies that they are already a lost cause – nitwits who are incapable of learning and, in the process, able to reconsider their own thinking. Shouldn’t we try to draw them out of the religious cocoons they have grown up in and encourage them to engage with those with alternative points of view rather than just proving that a lack of belief in gods doesn’t make someone any less bigoted. Dismissive, ugly comments about someone you don’t know a whole lot about is bigotry IMO.

        1. Shouldn’t we try to draw them out of the religious cocoons they have grown up in and encourage them to engage with those with alternative points of view…

          How do you propose we do that when these students won’t deign to crack a book that isn’t smack in the heart of their faith-based sweet-spot (a book that doesn’t proselytize an opposing faith, but merely discusses their disfavored life-styles), and when they will readily open their mouths to demand and complain, yet thus far decline to open their eyes and ears to listen and learn? Tell me you haven’t forsaken the fire-and-brimstone of your youth only to embrace osmosis. 🙂

          Students attending secular schools have no more right to insist that a school cater to their superstitions than students who throw horoscope charts have to demand that an astronomy department cater to theirs. (The only difference being that one of these baseless beliefs is baselessly privileged over the other.) I have no reason to doubt that the sincerity and depth of the astronomy aficionados’ beliefs are equal to that of Christian students, do you?

          If these students are unwilling to accommodate their beliefs to a doctrinally neutral, secular curriculum (as the acts recounted in this post so far demonstrate) — if what they seek instead is an education that mutually reinforces their faith, or at least one that in no way inferentially conflicts with it — then they ought to consider attending a sectarian school, some of which offer first-rate educations. (It need not be Bob Jones or Liberty; I used these as synecdoche for religious schools generally, owing to their name recognition and geographical proximity — and, yeah, ok, to toss in a touch of snark, too 🙂 ).

          If, on the other hand, these students can see their way clear to attend a secular school such as Duke under the same terms as any other student, regardless of creed or conscience, they should be welcome with the same open arms and brio as all other comers. (And if a private institution such as Duke chooses to accommodate its students’ religious inclinations extracurricularly, you’ll need never brook a complaint from me.) I would never, ever, advocate for religious intolerance or discrimination of any stripe. Were a secular school to engage in such invidious discrimination, I would pick up a placard and march alongside the aggrieved students, or gladly take up their cause in court.

          But it is essential that secular schools not be coopted into sliding toward the quasi-religious, that they stand firm against sectarian pressure, that religious students be made to understand from the get-go that they will be treated, and be expected to treat their academic responsibilities, the same as everyone else at university. Such commonality of experience in the secular realm, among those of differing faiths or of no faith at all, has long been the goal to which American higher education aspires, and a fundamental guarantor of our public weal.

          1. I absolutely agree that educational standards should not be compromised to accommodate the religious beliefs of students at secular schools. Duke has not caved to the demands of these students. All I’m really suggesting is that we approach this problem with some understanding of basic human nature.

            These kids haven’t left home yet so they have not made the move to a different environment which can give them a different perspective about what they have been taught at home and in their church. And, don’t completely dismiss the process of osmosis as a way of changing someone’s thinking. In my experience, it’s good for people to be given something to think about which is in opposition to their current understanding of the world and let them go through the process of reconsidering their own thinking and deciding for themselves that they were wrong.

            BTW, after reading the article that appeared on the WaPo website, it’s obvious that some of these kids did crack open the book and actually read some of it. It’s likely that their parents did as well. Parents can be really good at applying pressure in various ways to prevent their children from giving serious consideration to ideas they, themselves, disapprove of. I think universities which require a one year residence on campus are doing a great deal of good in helping students make the transition to adulthood. A change of routine, associates, and environment can help open minds because it’s essential to think things through on your own to navigate the unknown. Mommy, Daddy and Rev. Whomever won’t be looking over these kids shoulders and telling them how to dismiss every idea they are exposed to so they won’t and don’t have to think for themselves.

            1. “I think universities which require a one year residence on campus are doing a great deal of good in helping students make the transition to adulthood.”

              Well, if I had it to do over, I’d pick a quieter dorm (if a quiet dorm exists somewhere) – if I decided to acquiesce to that requirement like a good obedient boy. (Unless dealing with gratuitous Philistine noise is part of transitioning to adulthood.) And I would insist on some token input into whom I’d have to spend the greater part of a year in a large custodian closet.

          2. I can’t find it, now, though I tried, but… There’s a YouTube channel demonstrating how to non-confrontationally approach believers, ask them questions that seem benign as any survey should, and, in this occult Socratic process, make them start questioning the foundations of their beliefs, to start them questioning their religion. The site’s videos show real examples, on American college campuses, approaching anyone and everyone, regardless of religion. This approach gives believers the sense that they are not targeted, and that they are being given a chance to represent and share the beliefs they proudly hold dear. Somehow, it does this without given believers a platform to go into long, preachy tirades, too.

            I’m so sorry I can’t find the site. I think there are several. If anyone else knows, please post. Thanks.

            1. That strikes me as underhanded. If someone approached me with a phony ‘survey’ then started working up to leading questions it would be extremely counterproductive for them.

              I do sometimes answer surveys, donating my time in public-spirited fashion in the belief that my views are of some tiny statistical use to the questioner. If it becomes apparent that they have been using my time fraudulently, that my answers were of no interest to them, and they are in fact trying to ‘sell’ me something, then I am not charitable.


              1. It’s done without lying and without leading questions. Sure, the questioner doesn’t come right out and say he’s there to make believers question their own faith. And they don’t ask, or he would answer the truth.

        2. I know that the comments here are not being made directly to these “fragile religious snowflakes” but unlike me, these religious snowflakes are growing up in the age of the internet and, therefore, have the ability to do a search and read the discussion going on about this issue outside of the community in which they live. Comments like “Jesus this kid is such a prick.” are nothing more than nasty insult and add nothing to the discussion.

          I’m sorry that this prick is going to get his fweeings hurt by my blunt language — but, Jesus Christ! The kid is headed off to college and he expects us to smile and nod at what a wonderful guy he is for making a big stink about how he’s not reading a book with drawings of women having sex?

          College is the time when the training wheels and diapers come off. If he can’t handle being told what a prick he is for being such a prick, then he won’t last a week on campus and had no business applying there in the first place.

          Of course, that just means that he’s an hopeless lost cause, unfit for life in the modern world. If he can’t handle college life, about all that’s left for him would be a trade job…and can you imagine the reaction he’d get at a construction site making a similar big fuss telling the crew about how he wouldn’t even touch a Playboy?

          The time for coddling in his life is long past. It should have been phased out over the previous several years, at least; a text such as Fun House belongs, honestly, in junior high. This kid’s prickish antics here are no more respectable nor endearing than him pouting that he won’t have his cookies and milk until he gets his blankie back.


          1. Your anger and frustration, along with outrage, are appreciated. The man-child, not yet out of his parents’ house, not yet clear of the environment that shaped him, cannot be expected to blossom overnight into a fully functional, critically and creatively thinking human being. His knee jerk reaction was indoctrinated into him, or he aimed to indoctrinate it into himself. If the former, give him time. If the latter, he will be recognized for what he is and ostracized by those of clearer insight. A huge paradigm shift rarely happens overnight, over one summer, or over a single book.

            1. That may well all apply in Brian’s case. But the problem is that he’s choosing to wave his stinky diapers in public — or, alternately, to run out into the street and play in traffic.

              For better or worse, he’s an adult now and must be treated as such, especially when he himself puts himself in the public adult sphere. If he wants to live a sheltered life, he needs to seek shelter.

              If you don’t agree…do a mental search / replace of “Jesus” and “The Bible” in everything he’s said with “Santa” and “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Would you still think pampering is called for?

              Now, if your admonition were accompanied by a call for Brian to be placed in a suitable mental health care facility, I could somewhat agree. He’s certainly delusional and demonstrating some very inappropriate and unhealthy attitudes towards sex and women, complete with explicit calls to violent self-mutilitation. But the problem with that is that it would also apply to almost every Christian, of course, and there just aren’t enough beds in our facilities….


              1. I think you present two choices which, both, are simply too extreme. Go ahead and hit him upside the back of the head, to let him know he’s acting like an idiot and shake some sense into his brain, but don’t burn him at the stake. At least, not yet.

              2. To be fair, the kid is probably 17 or 18, still a pretty unformed teenager. If he still has these opinions when he’s 30, jump on him then. Nobody starts university with a fully developed intellect, after all.

              3. He’s old enough to vote, to be drafted, to drive, and to get married and procreate without his parents’s permission. I think he’s bloody well old enough to be told he’s making an ass of himself by telling everybody how awesome he is for thinking of such an amazing plan to protect himself from a terminal cootie infection by not reading a comic book.

                That reminds me of another part of this that really bugs the shit out of me. He says it’s not about teh gheys, and even pulls the “one of my best friends is bisexual” card…but I have a really difficult time buying that; he doth protest too much. And he even sneaks in a mention of how he thinks it’s a sin, but he’s not going to commit the sin of judging the sinners.

                No, I’m afraid he’s getting much less than he deserves for being an immature homophobic misogynist — and, if we don’t teach him the lesson of what little respect immature homophobic misogynists get nor deserve by heaping well-deserved scorn on him, what is going to prompt him into growing up and getting over his fear of lesbian cooties?

                If he comes to his senses, wonderful. I’ll congratulate him for growing up and for having the maturity to admit his errors, and I won’t continue to rub his face in his youthful indiscretions. But he certainly doesn’t deserve that today; today, he deserves to be told to grow the fuck up, already, and to stop being such a pompous prick.


              4. No doubt people will say that to him, and it may or may not help him to mature. He’s got a long way to go, but he has to start somewhere. Who knows? Even by the end of his freshman year he may have mellowed a bit. His teachers have their work cut out for them.

              5. No offense, Ben — and I truly mean that — but if you wake up tomorrow and read your comment as though some stranger had written it, you might find it reads like that stranger doth protest too much, as well. Is there something very personal to you in all this? (If so, you probably shouldn’t admit it over the interwebs. Just sayin’.)

              6. Huh? What on Earth personal do you have in mind? I have no children, let alone any college-age, let alone any making asses of themselves by bragging about pious comic cootie avoidance.

                And how is this whole story and my response significantly different from so many others on this Web site?

                Specifically, how is Brian different from any other “safe space” college kid whiner I’ve said should grow up, or from any other Christian “some of my best friends are gay” homophobe whom I’ve lambasted for bigotry? And as to the curriculum — you do remember, do you not, my defense of the high school English teacher who read the Ginsburg poem a student brought to class?

                So what about this is making you think I’m trying to cover something up? Is it some sort of similar projection on your own part?


              7. I don’t think so. You assail the young man for his stridency, do so in strident tones, call him out for “doth protest too much”, while you seem to do that, too. My thought was that there might have been something in your past, some disturbing memory faintly awakened by this kid’s story. As for me, I too have no children, and if I had, rather than over-protecting them from exposure to things, I’d probably over-explain those things. That’s just me.

              8. My “he doth protest too much” aimed at Brian is his objection to looking at lesbian cartoon pr0n lest Jesus’s command that he afterwards pluck out his eyes apply to him. I have a very hard time believing that a teenaged boy in this day and age has never seen some form of pornography before, and almost as much trouble believing that none of what he’s seen has included lesbians.

                It’s not exactly the sort of thing suited for public discussion, but that above statement should make it clear that I, myself, did, in fact, see pornography by the time I was his age — and that was back before the days of consumer digital cameras, let alone Internet video streaming. And I was one of the sheltered kids!

                And the closest thing you could call to a disturbing memory about that would be related to a party for the premiere of a porn movie a fellow student had starred in…and it was a murder / slasher porn movie with dismemberment and that sort of thing. I didn’t stay to watch the whole thing.

                No, my disgust with him is entirely due to the usual factors: he’s waving his Jesus in everybody’s face, he’s trying to silence discussion of critically-acclaimed literature for prudish reasons, he’s trying to make sex and women and lesbians and women having lesbian sex appear disgusting and subhuman, he’s trying to make himself appear superior to the rest of himself not despite but because of all those other flaws…as I wrote, the usual.


              9. Well, for the record, I agree with your points regarding the young man’s faults and have not argued them. I work with kids, +/- 5 years, and it’s clear their brains are still developing, as are their senses of self. Once he has a good sense of self, and those apron strings have gone thread bare, he just might break them on his own. We could, though, push him right back into his cloister if we publicly humiliate him enough, turning him into the Christian martyr he likely sees himself as being.

                Socratic teaching, public or private, will have more impact than either flogging or humiliation, and much more than both, together.

                “The beatings will stop, when morale has improved.”

                Don’t molly coddle; just challenge his mind, at his brain’s development level.

                How do you think ISIS got so good at drawing kids this age? It hasn’t been through brow-beating — not until the kids are in ISIS hands, anyway.

              10. That sort of kid-glove treatment is for his personal circle, and I hope he does, indeed, have somebody clear-headed who’ll sit him down and gently show him the ass he’s being.

                But, for better or worse, he’s made himself a public figure, the likes of the infamous televangelists and theologians and “museum” operators we regularly treat similarly. And there’s no room for mollycoddling on this stage.

                And, remember the point that Richard often makes: the audience isn’t necessarily the one to whom you address your words. Honestly, I have little hope for this kid coming to his senses any time soon. Maybe by the time he graduates if he’s lucky; more realistically, if he’s to come to his senses at all, it won’t be for a decade or three.

                In the mean time, making plain that only idiot pricks fear lesbian comic cooties should do wonders for those who haven’t yet made such asses of themselves.


              11. Also keep in mind, though, that suicide ideation is not unusual at his age, and the extremes of public shaming which came with social media have led to more than a few. He’s too green to be thick skinned. Whether you intend to influence him personally or not, he is sure to take it personally, if/when he finds this thread. All he has to do, really, is google his own name or a few keywords of the situation. He might be doing that now, just to look for supporters. Harsh words carry more clout than empty praise, too. It’s what bullying is about. And there, I do have experience — as the target of bullies.

              12. I can’t live my life worrying that some public figure eagerly I’ve never met eagerly lapping up his fifteen minutes of fame is so fragile he’ll kill himself because I called him an idiot. If my words here drive him over the edge, then it can only be because he’s already dangling from the fingertips of one hand.

                And it’s not just kids his age at risk for suicide. Look at the recent spate of suicides in wake of the outing of the members of that cheat-on-your-spouse Web site. Should I refrain from calling Ted Haggard a bigoted asshole out of fear that he might have just learned that he’s about to be exposed for activity on


              13. So?

                And let’s not forget all the teen rock stars. Can you imagine all the “Oh, I can’t stand him!” posts out there about the latest boy or girl wonder? Should we refrain from any negative comments about people until they’ve attained a certain age? And if that certain age isn’t “college years,” then what age? 21, when they’re old enough to legally drink and really make asses of themselves? 25, when they’re old enough to run for Congress? I can think of all sorts of immature, idiotic things about my 25-year-old self. Maybe we should just wait until retirement age at 65 just to be safe? But even then, lots of people kill themselves or otherwise manage to die soon after retirement.

                Or you could just take my approach: if you’re going to put yourself in the public spotlight and actively seek out attention, you’re fair game for any and all criticism, justified and reasonable or not. If you can’t handle it, you shouldn’t have stepped out in the first place and you should get out as quick as you can.

                Of course, if the kid were unwittingly and unwillingly thrust into the spotlight, public attention and criticism might be unwarranted — but that’s very much not the case here. He’s been talking to everybody in the press who’ll listen to him and very clearly eating it up.

                He just jumped into the deep end and made a big splash. If he gets into serious trouble, one hopes that there’s a lifeguard near him who can rescue him…but if his only complaint is that the water is cold and he’s nervous because he can’t touch the bottom with his toes…well, tough shit. Swim ashore and please don’t stop to piss in the big people pool the way you’re known to piss in the kiddie pool.


              14. Jest congenially a-thinkin’ – and as a matter of noble principle – what if the private tyranny university required all freshmen – as a matter of student “cohesion” and “comity” – to attend the first pep rally (much as the requirement to attend chapel at a private sectarian university) prior to the first Duke Blue Devils football game – or especially the first basketball game, what with membership in the “Cameron [name of the basketball arena] Crazies” apparently being a most desirable objective? Is one less a Duke type than s/he could be if s/he declines to camp out in a tent in the cold in order to procure those sacred relics, basketball tickets? Surely there are a few Hitchenesque (“I couldn’t give a damn about sports”) types among students.

            2. Again, I don’t think students should be required to read any book for such a purpose unless the university president, the board of trustees, and department heads are also required to read it. They surely wouldn’t want to miss out on it, as empathetic as they surely are with the students? They surely also (want to)read and expand their intellectual horizons, don’t they?

              1. I’d be astounded if they haven’t read it. And even more astounded if those who haven’t would give any reason beyond being overworked for the omission.


              2. “I’d be astounded if they haven’t read it.”

                I’d be astounded if they have read it, especially the MBA/JD CEO moneybags-types universities strive to have on their boards.

              3. If you’re going to extend it to the high society types who do nothing but vote by proxy once a year, sure. I could see they haven’t bothered to do this any more than they’ve bothered to do anything other than have a party in an executive booth while a football game is in progress.

                But, again, if you asked them about it point-blank, the response would be a sheepish, “Honestly, it’s sitting on the coffee table at home but I just haven’t had a chance to make my way to it in the pile yet. I suppose I should probably move it to the top of the pile just to see what all the fuss is about.” Any of those types who would be inclined to make this sort of a fuss about it would already be holding press conferences.

                And, again. It’s a flippin’ comic book with some lesbian sex. On a college book club list. In an era loooooooooooooong after The Vagina Monologues. How on Earth can we even be having this discussion?


              4. “And, again. It’s a flippin’ comic book with some lesbian sex.”

                Yep, it basically being a comic book, this current generation of college students – refulgent and besotted as they are with short attention span and low boredom threshold an high school mindset – ought to otherwise easily-enough sail through this tome, as opposed to something substantive by the likes of Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Stenger, Grayling, Krauss, Hawking and Coyne.

          2. Should he simply keep his mouth shut so as to “Keep The Peace”?

            Can he get by with saying, “I’ll read this – and look at the pictures – to satisfy your requirements of me”?

            What if he decides he doesn’t want to read it – for whatever reason? Maybe he offers someone a $20 bill to give him a Cliff’s Notesque abstract/synopsis of the book sufficient to enable him to satisfactorily answer any questions about the tome posed to him? Is that OK?

            Would it be prudent for him to (pretend to) enjoy the book so as to optimize the chances of getting an “A” from this literary endeavor?

            I gather that it’s OK if he borrows the book instead of buying it? Or breezing through it the night before, as is the habit of not a few stellar scholars – even at Duke?

            1. If he wants to be even remotely deserving of respect, he’ll shut up and read the goddamned book. If he still thinks it’s evil afterwards, he’s welcome to present a cogent, well-reasoned, well-evidence case for why it’s evil. But it’s most emphatically not his place to bitch and moan about having to read an award-winning book, nor to crow about his immaturity and demand praise and respect for being an asshole.

              Were I a freshman English teacher at Duke unlucky enough to get him in one of my classes, my very first assignment for him would be a detailed analytical review of this very book, and I’d make it a requirement for a passing grade for him for the semester. And follow up with Lady Chatterly’s Lover, Songs of Solomon, Lolita, something from the Marquis de Sade, and probably the latest newsstand edition of Playboy just for good measure. And, yes, I’d go to the dean over something like that.

              …which is probably why I’m not in academia, but I think our schools wouldn’t be nearly as fucked up as they are today if more faculty thought like this. As others have already repeatedly pointed out, you don’t learn anything without being exposed to new and uncomfortable ideas.


              1. ” . . . my very first assignment for him would be a detailed analytical review of this very book . . . Lolita, something from the Marquis de Sade, and probably the latest newsstand edition of Playboy . . . .”

                I look forward to an academic/university president attempting to pull that off.

              2. “Why? All those works have been already studied to death in colleges and universities around the country.”

                Did I misunderstand you?

                Re: your “Were I a freshman English teacher at Duke unlucky enough to get him in one of my classes, my very first assignment for him . . . .”

    2. I’m not sure how it is cruel to expect that someone who applies to a secular university should actually be exposed to the real world. As others have mentioned here, there are schools, such as Liberty University, that would offer a more sheltered environment.

    3. No one’s taking “nasty potshots” or “hurling insults about young people with strong religious beliefs.” What criticisms are being leveled here are directed specifically at those students who have raised a stink and demanded special privileges based upon their incoherent belief system, insisting upon being excused from an anodyne reading assignment, one meant to foster a communal experience among all incoming freshman, and from which they would likely draw invaluable lessons.

      Why should students who have solicited such public attention, who have demanded such special exemption, be immune from criticism merely because their incentive is religious — anymore than any other student would be were he or she to engage in such attention-mongering and special-privilege importuning based on other, non-religious ideological grounds?

      I empathize with you (just as you empathize with them) for the miserable childhood your intransigent and unloving parents foisted upon you based on their obdurate religious views and associated psychopathology. Turns out, in your case as in many others, Christopher Hitchens was right — religion does poison everything.

      1. How does the Duke private tyranny know if a student has read such a summer reading book? Do students have to read it online so as to be effectively monitored by Big Brother?

        What if the student made a counter-offer of reading another book, e.g., “god is nOT GREAT,” definitely a non-anodyne book?

        1. BTW, in this context, what does “anodyne” mean? Easy to read (look at)? Of no(t much) force or substance?

          Whatever book students are required to read, I think the university president and board of trustees should also be required to read it.

        2. We’re talking about a reading assignment here — you apparently have an extremely low threshold for “tyranny.”

          In the ordinary course of things, a reading assignment such as this is given for one of the books covered in a course required of all freshman. Giving students the assignment in advance of the start of classes allows the class sections teaching the book to hit the ground running on day one, and unites all freshman with at least one thing in common as soon as they arrive on campus. I assume the professors ensure students have completed the reading assignment the same way they do with any other course materials — class discussion, written assignments, testing, etc.

          FYI, “anodyne” as I used it here means non-deleterious, more likely to be benign than harmful.

      2. Sorry, but in my opinion comments like “Jesus this kid is such a prick.” are nasty potshots.

        I’m not even remotely suggesting that the ideas these students are articulating should be immune from criticism. What I am suggesting is that we engage with these ideas and give well-reasoned, logical responses not dismiss them as coming from religious snowflake pricks who should go to Bob Jones or Liberty. These are young people we’re discussing. Let’s engage with these young people like rational adults not use this as an opportunity to vent our frustration with the narrow-minded religious views these kids have been taught to believe. Give them a chance to learn though education and life experience that their parents and minister aren’t infallible mouth pieces for God whose beliefs should not be questioned.

        1. S. Madison –

          Sorry, I didn’t see this comment of yours before I respond to the one you posted above to steve oberski. I think my comment there applies equally to yours here.


      1. Dear Docatheist,

        I took a break from this thread yesterday as I had more pressing concerns to deal with. I have now taken another look and have read the discussion between you and Ben Goren.

        Sorry, but I’ve said all I have to say on this issue and have no interest in trying to engage with someone like Ben who thinks he knows everything there is to know about a teenager based on a public statement about a reading assignment which may or may not have been written with help from his parents. A statement which is most definitely more a reflection on his parents and their bad parenting than on the kid himself.

  28. I read the WaPo article by Mr. Grasso, and I’ve come to a different conclusion. He seems to have a functioning brain, and seems to be able to develop ideas and make decisions with it. Unfortunately, it seems to be full of bad “facts” that affect the quality of the ideas and decisions.

    It would be helpful to him if he were required to engage in thinking about this situation. First would be to ask him whether God would judge him as immoral if he were to view these images while tied to a chair with eyelids taped open.

    Assuming he’d say no, we’d have the conclusion that light waves interacting with the optic nerve aren’t the cause of this “immorality”.

    Going from there, it would be a matter of demonstrating that any “immorality” would be brought to the work by the reader, so that Mr. Grasso should either a) admit that he has an internal thought life that is already immoral according to his standards, rather than blaming the book, or b)declare that he doesn’t, and thus would suffer no harm in reading the book.

    Either of these would be more productive than assuming a mantle of moral superiority and sitting in judgement over the “pornography”. If a) he could take the opportunity to become more self-aware and perhaps get help with the thoughts he finds troubling or if b) he could use the opportunity to understand others and how their lives and experiences compare to his.

  29. Having read through the comments again, I do have a bit more sympathy for someone brought up by clearly dysfunctional parents (at least more dysfunctional than many). At the same time, I wonder what he (and they) were thinking he would run into when they applied to Duke. While I, and others here, were surely more naive when applying to college, I doubt I would have considered applying to Liberty University and then telling them reading the holey bubble would offend my sensibilities.

    1. I doubt I would have considered applying to Liberty University and then telling them reading the holey bubble would offend my sensibilities.

      Yes — my point exactly.

      And, to continue with the analogy…if I did so, it clearly would have been interpreted by everybody as an attack on Christianity and Christian values and would be treated as such. And I think we can all imagine that the reaction would be just a wee bit more than some strong words on an evolutionary biologist’s Web site. At the least, there would be very strong pressure to conform to the ideals promoted by Liberty UniverSeminary, or else to crawl back under a rock to lick my wounds. Indeed, I’d probably simply get kicked out of the school with my picture passed around campus security.

      This student is directly attacking the liberal Enlightenment values of a modern university, and in a very public and in-your-face way. He’s chosen of his own free will to take on for himself the role of Daniel in the lion’s den…so why is anybody surprised when the cats use him for a squeaky toy? Or upset that the injuries he’s suffering are no more than words of contempt written by faceless people on the Internet, words he’ll likely never even be aware of, let alone read?

      Were I flying out to Duke and picketing his dorm room in the style of Fred Phelps, I could see this sort of pushback. But, really? For simply stating my opinion with supporting evidence that he’s a spoiled brat who really ought to be ashamed of himself?


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