Our view

Don’t punish schools for assigning books

February 27, 2014 

  • In summary

    Legislators have no business trying to dictate what the state’s colleges and universities put on their reading lists.

Regarding the subject of anti-gay legislation, much of the nation’s attention has been focused on the Arizona law, fortunately vetoed by Gov. Jan Brewer, that would have allowed merchants to refuse service to gay customers based on religious beliefs. So, if we’re lucky, many might not have noticed the misguided effort by some South Carolina legislators to punish two public colleges for assigning books on homosexuality to freshmen.

The House budget-writing committee last week tentatively approved a spending plan for 2014-2015 that would cut $52,000 from the College of Charleston and $17,142 from the University of South Carolina Upstate. The purpose was to penalize the two schools for including books with gay and lesbian characters in their assigned reading lists for incoming freshmen.

The College of Charleston assigned “Fun Home” by Alison Bechdel. It describes the author’s childhood with a closeted gay father and her own coming out as a lesbian.

USC Upstate assigned “Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio,” a compilation of stories about South Carolina’s first gay and lesbian radio show. The assignment also includes lectures and other out-of-classroom activities designed to spur discussion about the book.

The move to enact the funding cuts for the two schools was pushed by Rep. Garry Smith, R-Greenville, who said he acted after college officials refused to give students an option to read something else.

Good for the two schools. They are right to stand up to a bully like Smith, who also said that making a point to these academic institutions requires impacting their wallets.

“I understand diversity and academic freedom,” said Smith. “This is purely promotion of a lifestyle with no academic debate.”

His actions indicate that he understands little about either diversity or academic freedom. Nor does he seem to understand the distinction between asking students to read books by and about gays and lesbians and “promotion of a lifestyle.”

The Legislature has no business meddling in the reading lists of colleges and universities. Allowing schools to determine a curriculum without the government peering over their shoulders is essential to the concept of academic freedom.

Smith has no problem with diversity – as long as schools don’t acknowledge that gays and lesbians exist. Taken to its extreme, Smith’s point of view would sweep thousands of classic books from the shelves because they deal with controversial subjects, including a variety of alternative lifestyles.

Those who support this ludicrous effort also miss the point of the common reading experience, which is part of the freshmen orientation process at most colleges and universities. The idea is to have the whole incoming class focus on the same book or books, and then engage in a group discussion. The exercise can both be enlightening and strengthen class ties.

Challenging students intellectually, getting them to consider different ideas and customs outside of those with which they are familiar and comfortable is a valuable part of a liberal arts education. And school faculty and administrators – not legislators – are in the best position to determine how to do that.

Some critics also say that the themes of these books are too explicit. Please! These are young adults, not hot-house flowers.

If legislators really revere diversity and academic freedom, they’ll oppose this ridiculous measure.

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