Colleges hung up on political correctness

Special to The HeraldMay 22, 2014 

The Legislature is butting heads with the College of Charleston over the assignment of a controversial book to every incoming freshman. According to The Herald, “Lawmakers who voted to take away money from the College of Charleston point to some illustrations in Fun Home that they say are too sexually graphic for freshmen students to see.”

What century are these men living in? First, these are college students, not children. Second, the vast majority have seen graphic sexual images before.

A study by the Pew Research Center found the average age of first exposure to internet pornography was 11. The U.S. Department of Justice has concluded, “Never before in the history of telecommunications media in the United States has so much indecent (and obscene) material been so easily accessible by so many minors in so many American homes with so few restrictions.”

Two European studies independently concluded that over 80 percent of 16-year-old boys watch porn videos on the internet. In households using Semantec’s “Norton Family” software (meaning people trying to protect their kids) “sex” was the 4th most used search term; “porn” was the 6th. Most kids are more tech-savvy than their parents and find ways to get around internet filters.

The faculty position is that the book is a means of “challenging students and exposing them to new ideas.” This premise is even dumber than that of the legislators. The book has homosexual themes – surely college freshman need to know about gays, right? News flash for the faculty: These students grew up with televisions. Maybe the professors have been too busy reading French poetry to turn on their TVs, but those who did saw Glee, Grey’s Anatomy, Lost Girl, Modern Family, Ugly Betty, Dawson’s Creek, Will and Grace and dozens of other shows featuring sympathetic portrayals of gay and lesbian characters.

How many of these portrayals are there? The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) did a survey of the 2012-13 TV season. They ranked networks by the number of primetime hours that featured LGBT characters. The surprise winner, Fox network, scored 42 percent, meaning some re-evaluation of their reputation as a radical conservative organization may be in order. The bottom line is that college kids in 2014 know about gay people, and the vast majority hold favorable views of them.

If the point of college is to challenge students and expose them to new ideas, this book misses the mark. These kids have already seen lots of gay characters on TV and followed them through the angst of establishing their sexual orientation. They have watched them being bullied and watched them come out to their parents and friends. There is one sexual relationship rarely explored by the media, however. It is the one between loving and committed individuals, especially the type where procreation would be a desired outcome.

When I got a copy of the book to see for myself what the controversy was about, the first thing that surprised me is that Fun Home is a “graphic novel.” This has not been stressed in the media but I think the format is important. Graphic novels are written like comic books, the difference being they are longer and not serialized. The book consists of pen and ink drawings with captions and voice balloons.

My point is not to debate the merits of the art form. This book is a thoughtful work and is about much more than just sexual identity. It touches on existential issues including death and suicide, and even includes references to Camus. This assignment, however, seems to be the ultimate validation of Marshall McLuhan, who coined the famous phrase “The medium is the message.” I fear the message many of these new freshman will take away is, “Relax! College isn’t so hard; it’s just like adolescence, except the comic books are longer and have grown-up themes.”

The CofC faculty gets to choose a single book, one time, for each freshman class. One doesn’t have to be a homophobe to be critical of this selection. Given all the compelling topics in the world, consistently opting for works devoted to political correctness only serves to reinforce the stereotype that college professors are more concerned with relentlessly promoting social agendas than with providing a broad education. Just look at last year’s book, Eating Animals, which equated eating meat or fish with animal cruelty.

The year before that students learned that slavery was bad. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with colleges exploring topics like this, but four years is not nearly long enough to transfer the wisdom of the world to the next generation. There are plenty of other things kids should be taught, and evidence suggests colleges are doing a poor job in several critical areas.

Studies reveal college seniors know little about American history and institutions. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute quizzed 14,000 students and found a disturbing number who were stumped by basic questions such as naming the three branches of government. How many senators are there? What is the electoral college?

Even more telling is that graduating seniors scored only 1.5 percent better than incoming freshman, and at a number of elite colleges, seniors actually scored worse. We are raising a generation largely ignorant of history, geography, world affairs and civics. As Edmund Burke said, “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” From my perspective, we would all be better off if we made Fun Home required reading for legislators and directed college freshmen to other fields of study.

Alan Nichols is a Rock Hill physician.

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