March 28, 2014

Sad day for academic freedom

“One of the things I learned over the years is that if you want to make a point, you have to make it hurt.”

“One of the things I learned over the years is that if you want to make a point, you have to make it hurt.”

That’s how Garry Smith, a Republican representative in South Carolina, explains why two state universities are being punished for their choices of literature for their students. Earlier in March, Smith sponsored cuts of $17,000 from the University of South Carolina Upstate and $52,000 from the College of Charleston for assigning books by and about LGBT authors. The S.C. House Ways and Means committee two weeks ago refused to restore the funding, and the Senate takes up the measure in April.

Students at USC-Upstate read “Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio,” an anthology of radio essays by gay and lesbian South Carolinians. The College of Charleston chose Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home,” an award-winning graphic novel about her troubled relationship with her closeted gay father and her discovery of her own homosexuality. The book was selected as part of the “College Reads!” program for entering students.

In an interview with CNN, Smith said, “I think the university has to be reasonable and sensible to the feelings and beliefs of their students. That was totally ignored here. I was trying to hold the university accountable. The stance is ‘Even if you don’t want to read it, we’ll shove it down your throat.’ It’s not academic freedom – it’s academic totalitarianism.”

To Fox News he complained that “the university was basically telling these parents, we don’t care if you have a problem with the books that your children are going to have to read.”

Set aside the fact that these books were being read by young adults in college, not young children, Smith’s comments are deliberately inflammatory. Assigning a book for discussion as part of a liberal arts education is hardly “academic totalitarianism.” In fact, students who objected to “Fun Home” could attend a session where the book was not assigned.

More troubling is what Smith’s actions – and the support from fellow Republicans in the S.C. House – say about their misunderstanding of the nature of education and the power of ideas.

In the marketplace of ideas, the best ones withstand close scrutiny and difficult tests. The weak ideas – the fallacious assertions –are eventually ferreted out. The best way to expose faulty thinking is to hold it up to the light of discussion and debate, and indeed, those people who are willing to put their own convictions in the crucible aren’t threatened when better, more convincing evidence proves them wrong.

People who are afraid to test the strength of their ideas resort to censorship instead. The two books singled out for censorship by the legislature deal frankly with homosexuality, a topic undergoing a sea change in American society. Conservatives who believe that homosexuality is a “lifestyle” and a “choice” believe their political and social capital are eroding as gay people become an accepted part of mainstream society, and they respond by trying to silence their voices. A good example is the commentary from S.C. Rep. Stephen Goldfinch, R-Georgetown, whose wife serves on the Board of Trustees of the College of Charleston.

“This is an example where intervention is necessary,” Goldfinch told The State newspaper. “There are times either side can trample on freedoms of anybody. This book trampled on the freedom of conservatives. It would have been the same if it was an anti-Muslim book or an anti-Semitic book.”

Except that “Fun Home” isn’t anti anything. An autobiography, it doesn’t “trample” on anyone’s rights. This is one reason why education – and in particular, a liberal arts education – is so valuable. Truly educated people don’t fear ideas nor try to shut down voices of opposition.

Jayne Comstock, the new president of Winthrop University, suggests that the real education needs to be for the legislators, reminding them that a liberal arts education is where students do the hard work of learning to think critically. Being exposed to new ideas is how we learn – and the job of a university isn’t, as Smith says, to provide a bubble of comfortable, familiar “feelings and beliefs.” Learning is often an uncomfortable process, and understanding other points of view isn’t the same thing as being indoctrinated.

Even if the Senate restores the budgets, the damage has been done. The College of Charleston put its next “College Reads!” selection on hold until the Board of Trustees and the college president read and approve it.

At USC-Upstate, Chancellor Thomas Moore said, “I think that possibly in the future we will be somewhat more sensitive in the text we select.”

A sad day for academic freedom in South Carolina. A sadder day for students trying to get an education in our universities.

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