The Privilege to Abstain

In the past day, numerous news sources have picked up a story about incoming students to Duke University who are refusing to complete their assigned summer reading. The novel in question, “Fun Home” by Alison Bechdel, is an autobiographical graphic novel which deals with issues common to many memoirs like coming of age, interpersonal relationships, family dynamics, etc. However, the apparently scandalous material in question is the sexual and specifically  homosexual themes which the novel grapples with as well, and which some students say violates their deeply held religious beliefs.

I realize that I am perhaps being somewhat naive to ask you to suspend any of your personal baises regarding this particular incident, but I’ll make the request nonetheless. Now that we are all totally impartial, superhuman, super-fair and rational beings, we can ask ourselves: “What would I do, faced with the assignment to read a novel which I feel goes against my personal beliefs?”

Does reading a novel which contains material with which you disagree inherently imply support for that novel’s contents, or even complicity with them? Should no man but a Nazi ever read Mein Kampf? Can we ingest, digest, and synthesize thoughts from material antithetic to our own opinions or morals?

To this last question I say absolutely yes. To this last question I say that not only can we reap great academic benefit from reading and grappling with conflicting ideas, but indeed we are called to. Am I twice-naive to believe that colleges are places where we can engage with conflicting worldviews and be challenged by new ideas? I would certainly hope not.

Regular readers of the blog and those who know me personally could certainly predict what my opinions on this matter would be. I’ve long held that undergraduate institutions have been veering dangerously toward a coddling creche of affirmation. Trigger warnings, not-so-subtle censorship, and an obsession with political correctness have largely quashed real, thoughtful discussions in many classrooms across the country. So naturally, I don’t really support these Duke freshmen who are standing up and speaking out against the assignment. They needn’t support homosexuals or homosexuality or whatever it is they find some objection to in this novel in order to read the novel.

Especially in colleges and universities, we should be looking to create spaces where ideas are safe, not where people are safe from their ideas being challenged. My freshman orientation keynote speaker, a beloved professor, told our entire class that “unless we were uncomfortable, we weren’t learning”. I agree wholeheartedly with this sentiment. The goal is not discomfort, but rather to be outside of our comfort zone. In other words, learning isn’t a function of deliberately bothering someone, but it also cannot be achieved in a realm where all things are familiar, known, comfortable.

One of the main reasons I support removing some of the training wheels and opening up more to discussion and debate is because I believe that even when you are “forced” to read something with which you disagree, you can still stand up and state your disagreement. Just in the same way as I think it would be a disservice to education to allow these intensely Christian students to abstain from reading material because they disagree with it, it is also a disservice to suppress their disagreement.

One thing I wonder about this instance is, if these Christians do read the novel and still feel really anti-gay, will their arguments be entertained in the classroom, or is that where being open to other worldviews stops being a good thing? On one hand, I think the students should have to read this assignment, just like any student should. On the other, I understand that there is a slightly more sophisticated argument going on here than “we don’t like homosexuals” (although no doubt that’s as complex as many of the students’ arguments get). Perhaps some would argue that the problem is that they are being exposed to an opposing viewpoint and being made uncomfortable, but the other students will not be. If they attempt to bring up their religious-based, anti-gay arguments, in all likelihood they will be shouted down, subject to ad hominem attacks and essentially silenced for the comfort of the majority of the colleges customers…er, students. This too is an issue. I don’t care much for the peoples’ feelings. If there is anything political I feel strongly about it’s gay rights and equal treatment by the government. What I do care about is the fact that one viewpoint will be predominantly supported. When it comes to alternative viewpoints, even those which are arguably bigoted, they will not be given their fair chance. As I have said, a classroom should be a safe space for ideas, not a safe space from ideas.

Many people will share articles about this incident and rail against “these crazy conservative christians who won’t read an assignment because they think gays are icky”. However, I would argue that these commentators missed the point, or at least have chosen to focus on a less salient point.

The real problem exists when colleges cease to be places where individuals can be exposed to opposing and varied viewpoints on a subject. Be they liberal, conservative, moderate, or any of the other myriad schools of thought which are not inherently political in nature, students will learn when they are exposed to new thoughts. It is important to ensure that the students can deal with a novel like Fun Home, rather than being supported in their choice to ignore these challenging themes. It is also important to ensure that students on the other side of the fence, likely the majority, are challenged as well by being exposed to viewpoints which at the current, would likely be silenced.

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