Our view

Senators meddling in college curricula

May 20, 2014 

  • In summary

    Lawmakers shouldn’t be telling colleges and universities what they can teach and what they can’t.

The so-called compromise regarding budget cuts for two state colleges that assigned books dealing with homosexuality to incoming freshmen hardly meets the definition of compromise. It’s just punishment from a different blunt instrument.

State lawmakers objected in February to programs for freshmen at the College of Charleston and the University of South Carolina Upstate that required students to read books that included material on gay characters. The College of Charleston assigned the graphic novel “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic.” The book describes the author’s childhood with a closeted gay father, who commits suicide, and her own coming out as a lesbian.

USC Upstate assigned “Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio,” the story of South Carolina’s first gay and lesbian radio show. Out-of-classroom activities included a satirical show titled “How to be a lesbian in 10 days or less,” which was canceled after senators accused the school of using the play as a recruitment tool.

To punish the two schools, state House members voted to cut $52,000 from the College of Charleston’s budget and $17,000 from USC Upstate’s budget. The figures roughly represent what the schools spent on their respective reading programs.

The cuts spurred an uproar from critics who said the Legislature shouldn’t be interfering with the curricula of state colleges. Students at other colleges, including Winthrop University, protested the cuts by holding their own reading programs and discussions of the two books.

Last week, state senators, debating whether to uphold the cuts in the House budget, initially supported the cuts. But they eventually came up with what they labeled as a compromise. Instead of cutting the money directly from the schools’ budgets, the budget amendment passed on voice vote in the Senate required both schools to spend equivalent amounts to teach the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Federalist papers.

We have no problem with state colleges and universities teaching important documents in U.S. history – if that is what the schools decide to do.

What we do object to is lawmakers meddling directly in the development of curricula for state schools. While senators might have decided not to punish the two colleges by cutting their budgets, it still is punishing them by forcing them to spend money on teaching the nation’s founding documents without requiring any other state schools to do the same.

The Senate amendment also would require the schools to provide alternative reading materials for freshmen who object to assigned materials due to religious, moral or cultural beliefs. The amendment also allows students to not attend an otherwise-mandatory lecture or other out-of-classroom activity if they find it objectionable – with no negative consequences for students who opt out.

Not only are senators telling schools which materials they can assign, they also are allowing students to decide whether they want to engage in assigned activities. Where does this end? Will students be given unlimited freedom to refuse to participate in assignments they find “objectionable” for one reason or another?

Biology students might object to reading about evolution. Literature students might object to reading books that contain depictions of adultery or premarital sex. The ultimate result would be anarchy on campus.

Singling schools out and telling them what to teach is a serious affront to the autonomy of state schools and the authority of administrators, faculty and staff to determine curricula. Lawmakers need to take care of other vital unfinished business and let schools decide what reading materials to assign their students.

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