Back in February, I wrote a post about controversy in the summer reading program at the College of Charleston in Charleston, SC. The book selected by the school, which all incoming freshman were expected to read, was Fun Home, written and drawn in comic book form by Allison Bechdel. Fun Home, according to the Charleston Post & Courier, describes the author’s “childhood with a closeted gay father . . . the trial he faced over his dealings with young boys; his suicide; and her own coming out as a lesbian.” The College said it merely wanted to have a “conversation” about homosexuality (and perhaps pedophilia and suicide as well). The South Carolina legislature, fearing “indoctrination,” docked the school $52,000, the cost of the reading program, and the usual dance began.
“Censorship,” cried the College and its supporters. “Pornography,” said the legislature, and probably most of the taxpayers previously on the hook for the summer reading program. The dudgeon remained high on both sides, and then the author of the book joined the fray by bringing the stage version of Fun Home to Charleston for two performances. The auditorium was “packed” with 750 patrons for the first showing, attendance at the second was something less than that (an exact number was not provided). Earlier in the day, “dozens” of students (total enrollment at the College: 11,619) “rallied . . . in support of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning students, a move prompted by” the performances.
Not surprisingly, minds were unchanged. One legislator hinted darkly at “fixing the deficiencies” at the College of Charleston if “lessons weren’t learned over there.” Bechdel commented that said legislator was “severely out of touch,” though she didn’t specify with whom. The executive director of the Alliance for Full Acceptance charged the General Assembly with “still trying to bully those with certain views,” and the chairman of the school’s Department of Theatre and Dance tried to butter both sides of his bread: He said the performances were not meant to be an insult or a challenge to lawmakers. “I hope they won’t punish us for presenting a piece of artistic work.”
This flap illustrates perfectly the point I’ve been trying to make since last October (see “The Summer Reading List” posted October 8, 2013). “Common” book programs, where a significant cohort of students (usually, but not always the entire freshman class) is expected to read the same book, not for a class they’ve chosen but because the school has an agenda it wants to impose, do not encourage reading or thought or scholarship. The people who attended the play, and the “dozens” of rallying students, undoubtedly agree with the College’s agenda, and likely did so before reading the book or seeing the play. Their notions have been affirmed, their sensibilities assuaged, but the book was passed out to 4,000 people. Where’s everybody else? Some may oppose the book’s point of view intellectually, but I suspect that the vast majority has been made hostile or indifferent by the coercion. The academy has many ways to shape the beliefs of those in its charge, but summer reading programs are blunt, and often very public, instruments that ought to be abandoned.