Featured Post

Skipping The Summer Reading

I

Waaaaay back when Ronald Reagan was still President, I was offered enrollment at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Figuring that college in paradise was unlikely to suck, that was where I accepted and it became my institution of higher learning.

Shortly after graduating from high school and while handling registration for the dorms and otherwise girding myself for the upcoming realities of going to college in paradise, (albeit a pre-corrupted paradise), I got a letter from the College of Arts and Sciences: my first assignment. Although I was not yet registered for any classes, I was asked to read a book over the summer.

A specific book: a still relatively-new and headline-grabbing work of popularized science, The Blind Watchmaker, by Richard Dawkins. The College of Arts and Sciences indicated that they suggested that by reading this book, I could begin broadening my scope of intellectual thought immediately, before I ever arrived, and to lay the foundation for an intellectual experience that I would have in common with all of my fellow freshmen.

Back then, I still counted myself at least nominally a Roman Catholic, although I’d internally stopped believing in all that supernatural stuff about a wafer of bland bread turning into the flesh of Jesus Christ and Jesus’ mom having got pregnant without ever having had sex with her husband and God giving a tinker’s damn about teenagers who touched themselves or gay folks being all gay and whatnot. Consciously, I wasn’t quite ready to let go of calling myself a Catholic, notwithstanding that the underlying reality that my beliefs were already eroded beyond any shoring-up.

Yes, this is a photograph of my actual biology teacher.

Yes, this is my actual biology teacher.
Requiescat in pace, pater.

That was primarily because I had enjoyed the tutelage of some talented teachers and morally good men who happened to be ordained Roman Catholic priests. And the Roman Catholic Church, in my experience, was simply unthreatened by the concept of evolution in the way that were other sects of Christianity (at the time we called them “fundamentalists”). who originally believed the very concept of evolution was a threat to the faith itself, and that there were all sorts of bizarre stories and intellectual backflips offered by apologists for literal creationism.

My biology teacher, a Jesuit hailing originally from a small rural village sort of near Napoli, Italy, told me that he felt sorry for these people, because they had blinded themselves to the miracles and wonders of science God had placed right before their eyes. “God loves science! God loves it when we do science!” he proclaimed, several times a week. “Our mind is a great gift from God, and we should use it and thank God for it!” Evolution, he said, was the hand of God itself at work, a miracle and a joy to behold. He was a little bit goofy sometimes, but I admired him and his enthusiasm for his field of study.

This left me thinking that the literal creationists were deeply unserious people, unserious about their claims to not be opposed to science and unserious about the Christianity they claimed to advocate. And that was before my soon-to-be university told me to read Richard Dawkins.

 

II

But I did read it, pretty much because I was told on a piece of paper bearing the University’s letterhead that I should read it. Now, if you’ve read The Blind Watchmaker, you know that Dawkins spends the bulk of his book demonstrating why the then-contemporary arguments for “intelligent design” don’t hold up under logic and experience. He spends a rather great deal of time describing a simple computer program he wrote which he said proves that from very simple forms of things, very complex forms of things can emerge. Even at the time, I doubted that it was actually very useful for the purpose of proving the truth of evolution.

His other rebuttals to creationist arguments were much better: creationists at the time asked, rhetorically, “What good is half an eye?” and the answer is “It’s better than no eye at all,” especially when you realize that “half an eye” in this context means an organ that distinguishes light from dark, so the creature can tell when it’s day or night (for instance).

The argument against the supposedly unanswered question “where could life have come from originally without God?” was at least an intriguing theory: crystals replicate themselves in both inorganic and organic media; perhaps clay crystals replicated in response to environmental conditions of heat and cold, dryness and coolness, and those self-replicating crystal formations grew more complex over time. I read the disclaimer Dawkins put on the proposal: he wasn’t saying that’s what actually happened, he was saying that explanations were out there and it would be wrong to say that science offered no explanation whatsoever. And usefully, this idea has life coming from clay, just like in Genesis.

richard dawkins photo

Dr. Richard Dawkins
Image by Shane Pope

Given my background of exposure to smart, evolution-embracing priests as my teachers, my initial reaction was, “Why did this Dawkins guy feel the need to even bother to write this book?” The book was long and after a while it seemed very repetitive and eventually it become downright dry. But the author’s passion for the subject was palpable; I could tell that Dawkins felt a great urgency to write it.

This was before there was much of a thing called the “internet,” so I had to do things like ask other people what was going on with that, and I discovered that there was a seemingly huge contingent of people who out-and-out refused to believe in evolution, who thought that it was a lie told by Satan and repeated by both Satan’s hookwinked victims and his willing minions, who thundered that scientists were liars and frauds and that my immortal soul depended on disbelieving what those scientists were teaching me. I had to go to places like the library to find books and magazine articles that they had written, and, horrified at the fruits of this research, I did exactly that. It confirmed the impression I had been given in school by the Jesuit who had taught my high school biology class: these were unserious people not to be taken seriously. To my astonishment, they took themselves very seriously indeed and there seemed to be quite a lot of them.

The summer assignment was, in some ways, the most effective and most important lesson I ever got at college.

Reading The Blind Watchmaker got me thinking critically, even about a book advocating a position that I pretty much agreed with on an intuitive level. I gauged the persuasiveness and strength of Dawkins’ arguments and judged for myself that some were better than others. I saw how particular arguments were good for one logical purpose but not necessarily another, and thus got an idea of how arguments are used. I found the importance of drilling through to understand why an author makes arguments at all. I did my own independent and unguided research to understand a subject deeper and to put that subject in context. I engaged the ideas in the text rather than the charisma of the author. Also, I acquired additional knowledge about biology, which was the tangible effect that I felt — the other stuff, I wasn’t really aware of working, but in retrospect, something about that book and that experience woke me up inside.

I started thinking at a collegiate level. This, of course, was exactly what the people who assigned the book wanted.

 

III

When I actually got to school, like many other incoming freshmen, my thoughts immediately turned to the other freshmen moving in to the dorms around me. Specifically, to the young women moving in to the dorms around me, and how incredibly cute they were. Even better, they seemed to be checking out the young men around them, so naturally this was an exciting time. There was about a week of orientation before classes started, enough time to learn our way around campus and the nearby community, shore up holes in our class schedules, buy books and other last-minute supplies.

So really, it was a whole week of nothing to do but make friends and solicit mutual romantic interest from amongst the abundant, abundant supply of potential mates my own age around me at every corner, all of us endowed with ample idle time, new and exciting places to explore, and perfect, warm weather to do it in. And some of the new friends readily on hand had ready access to alcohol, plenty of money to buy it with, and hospitable willingness to share around.

Public domain in the United States; sourced from wikimedia commons

Public domain in the United States; sourced from wikimedia commons

The only real obstacle to overcome was pretty clearly going to be loyalty to high school boyfriends back home and, well, they weren’t exactly there, were they? Now, you’d think that in an environment like that, you’d have to pretty much try, try hard, to not get laid. Yet somehow, eighteen-year-old me succeeded at this challenging task.

I began the project by making a male friend, and he and I then struck up a flirtation with a couple of young ladies who had been assigned to be roommates. For the life of me I can’t remember any of their names today. Let’s call my male friend “Quincy,” and the young ladies who had caught our eyes “Rhonda” and “Sally.” Rhonda was cute, and Quincy thought Sally was at least cute enough, so he was happy to fly wingman.

After a decent enough start to things, we shared a meal together at the commons. Conversation turned to the summer reading list. And as between Quincy, Rhonda, Sally, and myself, those among our foursome who had actually read The Blind Watchmaker consisted of “myself.”

Quincy said that he had simply blown it off. “The book wasn’t assigned for any class, so I didn’t read it,” he said.

Rhonda said that she hadn’t understood that it was something we were supposed to read at all. She didn’t know what the letter was all about in the first place.

Sally chimed in at this point: “I got the letter, too, but I wasn’t going to read that book at all. My pastor back home said it’s about how evolution is supposed to be true.”

“Oh,” Rhonda joined in. “Then even if I’d started reading it I’d have stopped.”

“I don’t understand,” I said. “Why wouldn’t you read a book about evolution?”

“Because I’m a Christian,” Rhonda said.

“Yeah, exactly,” said Sally. “Are you guys something else?” (This was asked in a tone of inquiry, not one of passing judgment.)

“I’m Catholic,” Quincy said, and I knew I was going to have nothing better to say than that.

“So you, like, actually read the book?” Rhonda asked me. Without waiting for an answer, she went on, “Seems like a waste of time to me, you either believe in evolution or you don’t.”

“And you… don’t.”

“Nope.” With that, Rhonda lost interest both in the discussion and in me.

If I could send messages back in time to myself, I’d send a message back to the me of that point in time that would say to my younger self, “Younger Self, that uneasy feeling you just had about this girl is what it feels like when you come across a ‘dealbreaker.’ You have no shot. You will not get a shot in the future. In fact, you do not want a shot. You need to move on to find some other girl. From this point forward, you’re wasting your time.”

The actual eighteen year old me lacked such guidance from his future self. Her apparent lack of intellectual curiousity, and ready willingness to throw her religion up as a shield against further romantic advances, should have signalled to me “not girlfriend material.” But she was cute, and this was all eighteen year old me could see. So I continued the chase until I had become pathetic and thus celibate.

Somehow, I missed the fact that this exchange had identified me as being from a different tribe, walking a different path, and possessed of a strange and untrustworthy way of thinking.

 

IV

Well, I’m not that luckless, clueless college freshman anymore. I’m a practicing lawyer who has accumulated a hopefully decent amount of knowledge about employment litigation. That knowledge molds my thought to a degree I do not always fully appreciate, at least at a conscious level.

For instance, it may interest you to know that the most common kind of direct anti-discrimination lawsuit filed in the state of California, by a big margin, are based upon disability discrimination. (See pages 13-18 of the California DFEH’s recent report to the state legislature.) The only other classification of claims that comes close to the numerical dominance of disability discrimination claims are retaliation claims, which are generally derivative of other kinds of allegedly wrongful employment practices.

law photoThe really, really brief thumbnail of such a case goes like this: employer hires employee to do job “X.” Job X requires doing things that include physical activity “Y.” Employee has a medical condition which restricts her ability to do physical activity Y. Employer and employee have a joint duty to talk about how employee’s impacted ability to do physical activity Y interferes with performing job X. This is called the “interactive process” and can be done informally. They are supposed to jointly arrive at a “reasonable accommodation,” “Z,” such that employee may actually do job X notwithstanding the restriction on her ability to do physical activity Y, if reasonable accommodation Z is permitted.

What’s a “reasonable accommodation”? The law doesn’t attempt to offer a bright line answer. Like pornography, you know it when you see it (and like pornography, sometimes people disagree on whether that’s what it really is). We do know that a “reasonable accommodation” will let the employee accomplish the essential functions of the job. If it’s uncomfortable for a file clerk to rest her knee on a hard surface while she kneels, then maybe a pillow for her knee while she files in a low cabinet– that’s pretty likely to be reasonable. But passing off filing functions to another employee? That’s not reasonable in most circumstances: filing is an essential function of the job, and the court isn’t going to let someone asking for an accommodation to do the job re-write the job description to suit their own fancy.

Lawsuits often revolve around the plaintiff contending that a “reasonable accommodation” was available, and the employer responding that no, what the plaintiff proposes would have put the employer to an “undue hardship.” What’s an undue hardship? The EEOC describes it in general terms as “an ‘action requiring significant difficulty or expense’ when considered in light of a number of factors [including] the nature and cost of the accommodation in relation to the size, resources, nature, and structure of the employer’s operation.” So it sort of eludes an easy, precise description and needs to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. And, the reasonable accommodation that the employer is legally required to adopt need not necessarily be the thing that the employee suggests.

We also live in a world of a relatively recently supercharged law called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It’s been adopted at the Federal level and every state has its version of it. It basically relieves people who claim a particular religious belief from doing things asked of them by others, which they subjectively determine to be contrary to the practices that spring from those beliefs. It puts the burden on others, usually governmental entities, to prove that there is simply no other way to do whatever it is that is going on other than the challenged practice, and that they’ve done everything they can do to minimize the impact this activity has on the religious freedom of the person who says their religion is being restricted.

Religious discrimination in private employment law winds up looking like a hybrid between the better-known mechanisms of the RFRA and the ADA: the employee voices a religious objection to something going on at work, and the employer then must find a reasonable accommodation for it. There is functionally no examination of the sincerity of the employee’s claim, and the definition of what constitutes a religious belief is pretty spongy. Like pornography, or what’s reasonable versus unreasonable in a disability situation, or violence too graphic for young children, you just kind of recognize it when you see it.

The real difference between the “undue burden” standards in the ADA and a Title VII religious discrimination case is that the employer’s threshold in a Title VII religious case is significantly lower: “undue burden” means it imposes a “greater than de minimis cost to the employer. That’s a whole lot easier for the employer to prove than the equivalent meaning of that phrase in an ADA case. And what that means is that the intricacies of how you are supposed to do your job are more important than what God tells you to do. (In practice, what you can do with this law is get your employer to schedule your regular day off work so you can have a religiously-mandated day of worship and rest.)

But that standard doesn’t come from a statute, it comes from an EEOC interpretive guideline, which could change with the political winds upon a shift in personnel with political control of the EEOC. Note that this does not necessarily refer to a Republican becoming President; a Democrat who appoints EEOC commissioners with different views on this than the existing ones can cause the organization to issue new guidelines. Or, Congress could step in. Or, the courts could decide that RFRA means Congress already has done this, that it’s instructed the government to afford maximum deference to individual religious belief. All the statute says is making an adverse employment action based upon an employee’s religion is an unlawful practice, subject to tort liability.

Hobby Lobby hasn’t directly invaded employee-versus-employer lawsuits yet. But I’m kind of waiting for it to happen with more than a little bit of dread, because it’s going to make advising my employer clients a lot harder and it’s going to make picking out good plaintiff cases from bad ones not only harder, but also more picayune in sifting through the endless, tedious trivia of people telling inarticulate stories griping about their bosses who, while maybe they acted like assholes, haven’t actually broken the law.

 

V

One of my “greatest hits,” meaning pieces I’ve written here that have accumulated a large number of lifetime views, was an essay I titled “Thinking in Shorthand,” reacting to a politically conservative journalism major at Butler University named Ryan Lovelace, who announced in a remarkably well-publicized fit of Internet pique that because he was asked to use “liberal” terms in a class, and to confront “liberal” issues in a graded assignment, he was being pre-judged and graded based on his political beliefs rather than his intellectual mastery of the assigned subject.

Therefore, Lovelace loudly announced that he would seek to avoid liberal arts classes in the future and leveled an electronic j’accuse of the cultural offense of political correctness at the institution of higher learning where he was enrolled. I took him to task:

What’s going on here is Mr. Lovelace opting out of the community of thought that characterizes a university because it’s uncomfortable for him to understand ideas and perspectives other than his own sufficiently well that he can articulate them fairly. Assuming a posture of political victimhood here is unseemly at best and contradictory to the idea of higher education at worst. Mr. Lovelace ought to take the class, learn how to separate fact from opinion, and form his own opinions based on the facts he’s learned.

journalism photoFor what it’s worth, Lovelace has landed himself a good position at National Review Online and has produced an impressive volume of work there since December of 2014. I do not know if he graduated from Butler, some other university, or at all. He appears to be on a trajectory of success as a partisan journalist, an endeavor for which the principal demands are epistolary ability, high but not necessarily absolute adherence to the prevailing ideological orthodoxy of one’s publisher, and a willingness to work for really crappy pay until at least one’s early thirties. A degree helps, but is not essential, for this career path.

As was clear from his piece written as a student, epistolary ability is far from a problem for Lovelace. He produced powerful, effective prose, and practice will have only improved it since then. Nor is ideological orthodoxy an apparent problem: accusing liberal college instructors of indoctrinating when they should have been educating is as classic a page in the conservative P.R. playbook as the ol’ Fumblerooski is in college ball. As for the pay, that’s no one’s business but Lovelace’s.

So while there’s certainly nothing objectively wrong with having a conservative point of view as opposed to a liberal one, and a claim that one’s grades in an academic setting are really a test of one’s political orthodoxy would be a valid one if it were true, it really looked to me like what was going on was a refusal by Mr. Lovelace to grapple with “liberal” ideas simply because they had been so labelled, and thus absenting himself from the learning experience that a university is supposed to provide its students.

Although I can’t get past the sneaky suspicion that the public complaint was really his job application for NRO, I’ll afford him the benefit of the doubt, that he’s grown intellectually to the point that he can at least understand and address ideas with which he disagrees, ideas that make him uncomfortable, by now. What the earlier piece demonstrated, though, was an intentional withdrawal from intellectual content that had been pre-judged to be at odds with the student’s political preferences.

 

VI

So I thought about the potential for intrusion of the RFRA into other areas of the law, and I thought of Mr. Lovelace’s public boycott of “liberal” classes, and I also thought about the very cute Rhonda’s refusal to engage with Richard Dawkins’ flawed but influential book, when I read about members of the incoming freshman class at Duke University refusing to read Fun Home over the summer because it contains explicit textual and graphic depictions of sexual encounters.

Bechdel photo

Alison Bechdel. Image by chase_elliott

Fun Home turns out to be the graphic novelization of Alison Bechdel’s memoir of life as a teenager in rural western Pennsylvania. Bechdel chronicles her coming of age, her coming to realize that she is gay, and her coming to terms with her father’s closeted gayness and his repeated sexual contact with an underage boy. Apparently there is a depiction of when the pubescent Bechdel discovered masturbation, and later, a depiction of a woman giving another woman oral sex (descriptions do not indicate whether this is Bechdel losing her virginity; whether that is the case or not is unimportant for this essay). Apparently the father suicides. I’ve not read it. I’m told it’s really a powerful, frequently deeply saddening, story. I probably wouldn’t have read it myself, but for this media bubble — now, I may very well seek it out.

I’m also told that it has been given the Broadway treatment so there is a musical based on its story. Hopefully it’s more Billy Elliot than Color Purple.

This isn’t the late eighties anymore. Unlike when I had to seek out a spot on the campus newspaper to get an audience for my writing, the students can speak for themselves and articulate their reasons, and I think pretty proficiently. More proficiently than the girls I was interested in that first week did, although admittedly, I’d put them on the spot. These days, there’s a lot more written communication anyway — blogs, tweets, texts, facebook posts.

So I decided to go straight to the source and see what one of these students had to say about the situation. Didn’t take long to find the piece: One student at Duke who’s refusing to read Fun Home, Brian Grasso, describes it this way:

After researching the book’s content and reading a portion of it, I chose to opt out of the assignment. My choice had nothing to do with the ideas presented. I’m not opposed to reading memoirs written by LGBTQ individuals or stories containing suicide. I’m not even opposed to reading Freud, Marx or Darwin. I know that I’ll have to grapple with ideas I don’t agree with, even ideas that I find immoral. … If the book explored the same themes without sexual images or erotic language, I would have read it. But viewing pictures of sexual acts, regardless of the genders of the people involved, conflict with the inherent sacredness of sex. My beliefs extend to pop culture and even Renaissance art depicting sex.

I’m not quite sure that what Mr. Grasso is asking for is possible. If the subject of the work of art in question is sexual in nature, that means that there’s going to be some treatment of sex in some way. And I’m not sure what he means by “Renaissance art depicting sex.” Huh?

[Is this where I put in a “trigger warning” that a linked image of a Renaissance painting might be considered “pornographic” by some people? People like, say, Mark Twain?]

Does Grasso mean Titian’s Venus of Urbino? I wish, for his benefit, that one day Grasso has the opportunity to visit Florence and there among other delights go to the Uffizi. But if he is so fortunate, will he ask for a warning about which gallery the Titian is hanging in so he can skip it?

What will he do should he visit Pompeii and its famous frescoes that really were intended as pornography?

Go back on up to the blockquoted passage I culled out from Grasso’s article. Grasso writes:

My choice had nothing to do with the ideas presented. I’m not opposed to reading memoirs written by LGBTQ individuals or stories containing suicide. I’m not even opposed to reading Freud, Marx or Darwin. I know that I’ll have to grapple with ideas I don’t agree with, even ideas that I find immoral.

He’s “not even opposed to reading Freud, Marx, or Darwin.” That concession speaks volumes — it means that a refusal to read those authors,the bedrock thinkers and intellectual giants in the disciplines of psychology, modern politics, economics, and bio-science, is presumptively on the table if they are somehow found wanting in the moral purity department. But, he’s willing to read them! That’s proof positive of his open-mindedness! Now, he’s reserving the right to continue to disagree with Freud, Marx, and Darwin and to find their writings immoral — but he’s willing to read them. Because they don’t come with illustrations of a girl touching her own cha-cha. Well, not in most editions, but you might want to contact the editor if you’re picking up Freud.

karl marx photo

Image by ell brown

Now, by all means, one can read and then profoundly criticize Freud, Marx, and Darwin. But if you’re going to study things like psychology, politics, economics, and/or biology, it’s not just a question of “being willing” to read these authors. It’s pretty much mandatory. You’re going to be continually grappling with the ideas they propounded because that’s what those fields of study are. Even now, a generation later, I deal with issues framed in a Marxist lens every day of my professional life: will we enforce a minimum wage, to what extent will we permit workers to unionize, must employers provide medical insurance to their employees? Answer yes or no as you think best, but as long as you’re using the law to distribute things between capital and labor, you’re playing Karl Marx’s game. It behooves you to understand that.

If you’re going to seek intellectual mastery of a subject, you can’t study only a Bowdlerized version of it because the real thing sometimes makes people feel bad. You can’t teach criminal law without teaching rape, because rape is a crime that must be prosecuted. This doesn’t mean you have to actually assign gay porn to Christians in a basic English class, or disregard the fact that some students may themselves be survivors of sexual assaults when discussing sexual assaults. But it also means you have to deal with the reality of the subject to be taught. Doing otherwise does your students a disservice and it does the people who will come to rely on that student’s knowledge when she applies it in a professional setting an even greater disservice.

So you can’t teach art history without dealing with some nudes. Titian’s Venus of Urbino is a very prominent, very famous, and very culturally important specimen of a portrait of a nude. I’m no art historian, but even I know that this painting is artistically important precisely because it is so frankly erotic. Elements of eroticism pervade art throughout human history: that’s because sex is something that people do. Like war, or eating, or sleeping. So it’s something people make art about, or at least make art that reflects this basic reality of life.

 

VII

I take Grasso at his word when he says, later in the piece, that he welcomes encountering and learning about other points of view, and his writing impresses me with the sincerity of his claim of interest in understanding them on their own terms, seemingly unlike some other people I’ve mentioned above. He writes of making an online friend well outside the orbit of a stereotypical clean-cut suburban Christian kid as a result of his public refusal to read Fun Home:

Over the past couple of days, I have received many encouraging messages from a new friend, who considers herself bisexual and a Buddhist. She and I became friends after she saw my Facebook post. Instead of criticizing me, she asked me to explain my beliefs. I, in turn, asked her to explain the Buddhist perspective on sexuality. This is how diversity is supposed to work. We each shared our perspective, and walked away from the conversation with a deeper understanding and compassion for each other. That is what college is really about.

That’s good, and it gives me more optimism for Mr. Grasso than I had for Mr. Lovelace because this demonstrates an open-minded and inclusive attitude. That will serve Mr. Grasso well in college and in life. But it still seems to fall short of what I would have him aspire to. Learning to understand and live alongside people different than yourself is indeed part of what college is really about. I strongly suspect that with his attitude, Mr. Grasso would do this anyway.

college photoBut tolerance and experimentation of other ideas and ways of life isn’t the totality of what college is all about. It’s a part of it, to be sure, but there’s more. Indeed, this ignores a basic building block of the idea of what college is for: the accumulation of a generally-accepted body of authoritative knowledge in a given field of intellectual specialization. In other words, learning a canon.

There’s been lots of talk about whether we should have a canon or not. I’m pro-canon. Subject matter experts have worked out, over the years, in every academic discipline, a constellation of works that convey the core of what a subject of study is about. I’m generally in favor of expanding the canon so it isn’t made up of only perspective of dead rich white dudes. That doesn’t mean expurgating the writings of those dead rich wide dudes — some of them had very important things to say, accomplished critical advances in knowledge, and these are things that we ought to study. We add to the canon to our intellectual enrichment; we delete from it at our intellectual peril.

Now, I suspect a principal objection is going to be, “Just because Grasso chooses to use the resource of college differently than you did, Burt, that doesn’t mean Grasso is doing it wrong.” I don’t think so. After all, still another thing that college is supposed to do is get people to think critically. Eliminating uncomfortable subject matter from one’s academic curriculum strikes me as an exceeding poor way to advance towards that goal. Indeed, it seems counter-productive: how is Grasso supposed to think critically about either art dealing with erotic themes, or cultural and moral attitudes about erotic subjects, if he intentionally skips all those classes, and worse, if the school does not impose some sort of academic penalty for doing so as a means of ensuring that the canon of a subject is indeed being learned?

I think a better objection to my specific gripe here is the most finely-honed one: “You don’t need to read Fun Home to gain an understanding of LGBTQ struggles, or to acquire the building-block critical thinking skills that, for instance, you describe partially acquiring by reading The Blind Watchmaker. Why not have Grasso and his colleagues read the same book as you?” (Never mind that the book is now thirty years old and part of the selection process for a book like this be that it is current.)

Even if Fun Home is a monumentally marvelous piece of storytelling (again, I’ve not read it myself), it’s obvious that a single book is far from the only book that can be used for the purposes of pre-matriculation college-level mind-sharpening and vision-expanding. Lots of books, probably even lots of recently-published books, can serve that role. Bright young minds will latch onto whatever they’re given and become brighter and sharper and better, if the young person is genuinely intellectually curious.

So I’m not panicking. There’s every reason to be confident in Mr. Grasso. But there’s also some anxiety, because this seems to be something of a milepost and I’m not sure how far we are along the course towards a destination I’d just as soon never get to.

 

VIII

The law has shifted in recent years. This affects us beyond the sphere of litigation, because the law and culture have reciprocal molding effects on one anothers’ development.

Congress and the Courts are telling individuals that their religious beliefs make them special and let them exempt themselves from things that they don’t like for religious reasons.

Grasso’s reasons for skipping the assigned reading are that this particular book contains content to which he has an objection grounded solely in his interpretation of his holy book. So Grasso and his colleagues’ boycott of the summer reading suggestion from their private university is a sign that this shift in the law has percolated out into the culture generally.

We may expect this trend to continue in the future.

People can be expected to continue absent themselves from cultural things that they don’t like, citing religious belief. Which is a purely subjective and internal phenomenon. Exposure to new, unfamiliar, and sometimes uncomfortable ideas, however, is at the very heart of what the higher educational experience is about. Permitting people to pick and choose ways to exempt themselves from such a thing dilutes the richness of the collegiate experience and its mind-enhancing power.

The next generation of college students will feel the feedback of that intellectual diminishment, because today’s college students are tomorrow’s thought leaders. And they’re being taught, by the law, that their subjective, internal religious beliefs make them special and exempt them from things they find religiously distasteful or which make them feel bad.

They find in the culture of the world of RFRA that there is license and succor for custom-Bowdlerizing the canon.

bamiyan buddha photo

The cliffs at Bamiyan, Afghanistan which used to house monumental stone Buddhas before the Taliban blew them up in 2001 after pronouncing them “blasphemous.” Image by DVIDSHUB

Keep some perspective. I’m not saying the world is ending, that the vitality of the academy is a sand castle facing high tide, or that we’re turning into some sort of informal cultural theocracy, just because some Christian kids going to a private college skipped a suggested summer reading assignment. That sort of destination is a still long sail away from a society that is still fundamentally liberal. So just because the winds go somewhat in that direction right now does not mean we’re far enough out of the harbor to be worried about the safety of our craft. It’s just that one of the things a sailor tries to keep in mind at all times is the direction and strength of the wind. That way, the sailor can do things along the way to take the vessel where the sailor wants to go, instead of where the wind takes it on its own. Iconoclasm is very much alive and well in today’s world, after all.

How long until the cultural feedback loop this sets in motion results in shifting the religious accommodation standard in an employment case from the prevailing “more-than-de-minimis” standard to to more demanding “significant expense” standard? And from there to the even more demanding RFRA “narrowly-tailored” standard? We’re certainly not there yet, but isn’t that the direction this is going? And what does a culture that goes along with that look like? My best guess is that culture looks heavily religiously Balkanized at best, and more than a little bit like the Republic of Gilead at worst. That’s not a mental image that I enjoy contemplating; it’s not a shore I want the ship of my society to wash up on. The whole point of cautionary tales, whether fictional or real, is to find ways to not follow their examples.

What you do is important. But why you do it is important, too. I’d frankly rather have seen the incoming freshmen skip the reading assignment because they were more interested in flirting with one another than this.

 

Burt LikkoBurt Likko is the pseudonym of an attorney in Southern California and the managing editor of Ordinary Times. His interests include Constitutional law with a special interest in law relating to the concept of separation of church and state, cooking, good wine, and bad science fiction movies. Follow his sporadic Tweets at @burtlikko, and his Flipboard at Burt Likko.

Images by chase_elliott and The British Library; all images under creative commons licenses or from the public domain.

Please do be so kind as to share this post.
TwitterFacebookRedditEmailPrintFriendlyMore options

68 thoughts on “Skipping The Summer Reading

  1. With apologies for commenting on the most trivial aspect of the essay, I was left wondering why the College of Arts and Sciences at UC Santa Barbara didn’t send me a letter telling me to read The Blind Watchmaker. Then I looked up its publication date: about the time I graduated from UCSB. Now get off my lawn, child!

    Also, I would submit that paradise would not require handy cans of turpentine to remove the gobs of tar you picked up on the beach. Pro tip: you probably don’t want to use turpentine for the gob in your hair, but vegetable oil works pretty well, too.

    Report

    • I read The Blind Watchmaker again a couple years ago, wondering whether I should try to get my son to read it. It doesn’t hold up so well. The Selfish Gene is still pretty interesting, though. I just had a difficult time reading it knowing what Dawkins would become. Like Elton John, it’d been better if he’d just retired at the end of the 70s.

      Report

      • When I was there, the student paper put out a call for better names the Gauchos, on the entirely reasonable grounds that Argentinian cowboys were very nearly entirely unconnected with Santa Barbara. The best suggestion was that we should be the UCSB Unsightly Offshore Oil Derricks.

        I think my timing was better that yours. I spent two years in the dorms. Things were pretty loose. There were guys brewing beer in the dorms, and one guy set up a still, and it wasn’t uncommon to have puffs of non-tobacco smoke come under the door. By the time I left they had pretty much cracked down on all that. After two years I moved to Isla Vista–speaking of paradise, what a dump that was! But it had character, with a strong hippie vibe: an honest-to-God leftie coffee house, long before Starbucks; a genuine head shop; a hippie food co-op; genuine hippies sleeping in Anisqoyo Park; etc. Most of that was gone by the time I left, replaced by yuppie clothing stores and the like. I haven’t been back in decades, but looking at it in Google Street View, it looks like it is still a dump, but with more chain stores than back in the day. People seem to still ride their bikes down the middle of the street, so there is that.

        Report

        • Yeah, it was starting that commercial, but not visual, transformation. I’m told smoking generally is down, whether tobacco or otherwise. In my day, smoking in the dorms wasn’t allowed but stepping outside for a smoke was tolerated and no one cared what it was you were smoking or how it smelled. In IV, of course, everything went.

          McBurley’s Burgers closed my second year (with Delta Tau Delta getting shut down their best customer base evaporated); Freebirds Burritos became a whole lot more Chipotle-like; Starbucks replaced Cafe Roma and Subway replaced Javan’s. Boo.

          At least Woodstock’s Pizza kept its old-school vibe and its awesome sauce-filled crust.

          The worst development since my graduation, though was on campus: they closed the Pub in the UCen! What used to be the Pub is now the base of some massive cone-shaped mini-Galleria of yuppie commerce, and where you used to splurge on a pitcher of Bass Ale you now grab a latte and go. While I’m sure there’s still places students gather for bull sessions, there’s less beer and more coffee fueling them, which has to impact the quality of the discussion profoundly.

          Report

          • Holy Crap, you guys have a Woodstock Pizza too? I thought that was a SLO thing.

            (does a bit of research)

            Huh. There are apparently six. All in college towns/neighborhoods, all but one in California.

            Report

  2. Awesome post Burt.

    I have not read Fun Home, and I am going to sidestep, somewhat, the RFRA and legal questions. But I own an Alan Moore (one of the most respected comic writers of all time)/Melinda Gebbie graphic novel entitled Lost Girls.

    Moore set out to make a pornographic comic. This is not a book which incidentally contains some questionable content on its way to make a different point; no, this is a book which is composed almost entirely of questionable content; but makes the point that even so, other truths may be found (about war/violence, and sex, and childhood, and the difference between fictional depictions of acts and real acts).

    It is an intentionally-filthy book, that is also a work of art and thought.

    Would it be appropriate to assign Lost Girls as entry-level college reading? I am all for expanding minds, but at what point should we step back, and let people decide for themselves whether they want their minds expanded?

    Put another way: a good mind-expansion, via art or other means, would do most people some good.

    Even so, we should not drop LSD in their drinks.

    Report

    • I agree, very nice post.

      I get the point of challenging incoming students to encounter people, ideas, and experiences, that may differ widely from what they’ve known in what will, for most of them, have been relatively sheltered lives up to that point. And while I haven’t read Fun Home, I imagine that was the purpose of it, though I can understand not wanting to read it because of graphic representations of sex.

      I will say that it seems to me that faculty, desiring to have incoming students’ worlds shaken up a bit through reading, should want to include books on the list that the kids are likely to read, and therefore that don’t present them with easy excuses not to read them. So maybe a book with graphic depictions of sex, if the book does contain such, wasn’t the best idea.

      Report

      • I bet they didn’t remotely anticipate that students would have a problem reading (“reading”?) the book because of those few explicit depictions of sex. Very likely they did anticipate that some would have a problem reading it because of its essential nature as an account of life from a perspective they weren’t comfortable with. (I wonder if those people either turned out not to exist at all, or just quietly didn’t do the reading, or if we’re just not hearing about their complaints.) I’m sure they were prepared with a firm response that that discomfort was exactly the put of assigning the book.

        But the complaints turned out to be what they turned out to be, instead. (Those darn crafty students.) So now I do wonder whether indeed they would agree with you that the book wasn’t the best choice for that reason.

        Report

        • Well, they always put controversial books on such lists, so they know that some people are going to object to them based on their topic or perspective, so the point is not to give them any easy outs, like “it has icky sex pictures.”

          Report

    • Would it be appropriate to assign Lost Girls as entry-level college reading?

      If you mean “pre-admission” it would seem like an odd choice since it wouldn’t give as good a story to discuss with people you don’t yet know.

      If you mean in a course where it was relevant, sure. If you can teach Ulysses to college freshman you can teach anything.

      Report

      • If you can teach Ulysses to college freshman you can teach anything.

        We stopped teaching Ulysses to freshmen 3 years ago, after the whole “trigger warning” people teamed up with the “Stop Teaching DWM!” people.

        We believe that this coincides with graphic novels being the required reading only tangentially.

        Report

      • Yeah, I didn’t mean “ever”, I just meant kind of, uh…blind. Lost Girls is definitely not a book you’d want to spring on people without some explanation of what they are getting into.

        I have no idea how explicit Fun Home gets; but all I meant to point out was that depictions of sexuality exist on a continuum from “fairly tame” to “It’s too late. I’ve seen everything”, even amongst artworks of indisputable high artistic merit; and there’s certainly an argument to be made that certain things are just “too much” for certain venues (even if Fun Home, specifically, doesn’t meet that standard here).

        Report

        • This article appears to show the “offending” pages. It’s one of those “gee, I guess this is technically explicit” scenes that are, in certain ways, the exact opposite of pornography.

          Report

          • According to the OP, Fun Home deals not just with the discovery that Bechdel’s dad was gay, but his “repeated sexual contact with an underage boy”. I suspect that part of the issue is that today, we much more readily brand imagery as “pornographic”, than we do prose/text. I could describe the plot to the Solondz movie Happiness, and it’s not going to hit your stomach like actually watching the film does.

            Could you assign Lolita to incoming freshmen? Probably. A hypothetical graphic-novel version of Lolita? Maybe not, depending greatly on how it was handled.

            Especially because to some degree in the popular imagination comics still retain their disreputable, titillating/pandering aura, regardless of what they depict; so if it’s sex-related, forget it.

            Report

    • Yes, that’s a reference to the magnum opus of Thomas Bowdler, who blanched at the thought that his daughter might take inspiration from Lady Macbeth’s foul language (but seemed to not mind that same Lady Macbeth was an accessory to murder) and thus changed the “damned spot” to a “crimson spot” that would not wash away.

      Report

  3. Counselor, my counselor, this was a great essay.

    For the sake of trivia, my freshman required reading was a Joyce Carol Oates novel which was her take on Chapaquitic (sp and I am lazy) as told from the women’s prospective. IIRC there was supposed to be some sort of seminar or lecture on the book on some day during orientation but I don’t recall going or having anything officially done to make sure we did the reading.

    Again, I find myself having inadvertently grown up in a bubble. I was born in a blue suburb of a blue state and in a part of the country where Evagelism and Fundamentalism never really took hold. We were taught evolution without controversy or complaint at my public schools though I knew the issue was debated elsewhere. My parents made me watch Inherit the Wind as a child and it was very clear that they were on Team Spencer Tracy/Darrow/Darwin/Evolution. My undergrad alma mater was also to the left and secular. We had a small patch of Republicans (one of whom was a friend and did a 180 to the left by the time she graduated). A friend of mine did say that there was a small bunch of Evangelically raised students who met and commiserated with each other but I only know this as hearsay. Another hearsay story I know is of a young Mormon woman who allegedly left the church her freshman year. The story went that she got her parents to pay for college on the condition that the she would sit down with some Mormon missionaries every month (or maybe every week) and have them try and convince her to reenter the Mormon faith.

    My undergrad probably contained a very self-selecting bunch of students. I think you have to be self-selecting to want to attend a college with a low student population and one that is exclusively undergrads.

    My take on the whole Duke and Fun House affair is wondering whether this is a conservative gotcha game at the whole trigger warning debates. It just seems to me in our tit for tat and never ending culture war, we are going to have a “two can play at this game” kind of escalation as you note. I wish I knew how to stop it.

    Report

    • Whether or not the Fun House affair is a gotcha game on Trigger Warnings is irrelevant. It probably isn’t because conservatives leave a lot of tell tale signs around their pranks. We also know that sex in general and homosexuality in particular is an area where conservatives are very sincere on. I’m going to give the student the benefit of the doubt and assume he is sincere. Even if he was not sincere, his point would still stand. If x is worthy of trigger warnings than certainly y should be. Trigger warnings can not be only on things liberals care about. If we are to take the idea seriously than they should be for anything that could potentially pull a trigger.

      Report

  4. You know, I actually think self-Bowdlerization would’ve been a superior response from Mr. Grasso. “Hey, can you tell me which pages have naked people or sexual activity on them and I won’t read those?”

    He woulda missed mayyyyyyyyyyyybe half a dozen panels. So if it really is a straightforward religious belief (akin to an Islamic person objecting to depictions of Mohammed), problem solved.

    And the rest of the book is still pretty damn powerful.

    Report

    • That’s essentially a request for a trigger warning, which it would be kind of ironic if he turned out to support. But if he did, maybe he’s got a point?

      It actually a fair question: in light of this, should assigning Fun Home maybe come along with a trigger waring going forward? It doesn’t seem completely unreasonable to ask to be informed that a work has graphic depictions of sex, and to ask for a reasonable accommodation, such as not having to be responsible for a very few small parts of the work. Maybe?

      Report

  5. I will say that I am generally sympathetic to kids raised as conservatives who arrive on campus and find they face an immediate challenge in that they have to swallow what is unmistakably a lot of liberal orthodoxy (even if it’s also intellectually correct academic orthodoxy), internalize it, and spit it out in order to excel at college. I’m particularly sympathetic to the problem of having to constantly manage trusting that you are being graded for the quality of your work on the one hand, versus suspecting that you’re being graded for simply choosing the wrong response according to orthodoxy on the other. (Especially since that involves determining when it is that you should be graded exactly for producing the orthodox answer (say, in physics or math, to use the clearest kind of example), versus when you should be graded for producing a well-constructed response to a question (say, in an English class).)

    I found myself dealing with this once in a class on the First Amendment where the instructor was fairly clearly a bombastic free-speech absolutist (by my lights, though I didn;t really understand it in those terms at the time). (He was this guy, a former litigator turned political science professor, and was closely aligned with the plaintiff in this case, which was getting rolling in lower courts while I was at Wisconsin. At the time, I suspected I might have gotten a lower grade in the class for writing less-than-witheringly-critical things about this book. I no longer really suspect that very strongly.) But essentially that was once in my time at college. It would be very difficult to deal with that in just about every class.

    Which makes it weird that, like you, I’m not actually all that sympathetic to their complaints. It was unlikely that academia was going to evolve in such a way that it didn’t take on a certain set of cultural and intellect (and political) affinities, rather than another. (I’ve often wondered why it is that turned out to be a liberal rather than a conservative one). It was very unlikely that it would develop in some kind of a rigorously neutral fashion, and, critically, nor do I think it would be desirable to try to impose such a straightjacket on university culture artificially today. So you kind of have to understand what university is going in, in my view, and understand that if you’re a conservative, there is going to be a degree of just trying to hold up against a constant clashing with your worldview. Easy for me to say, I know. And I do end up falling on the side of the campus culture wars that would like to see the extremes of expression of liberal orthodoxy sanded down just a little to try to make things a little more comfortable for kids coming in from a different background. But broadly, I think you kind of just have to let it ride. And the necessity to come into college with an open mind in order for it to be a successful experience is one that’s incumbent on all students, though its particular requirements vary from student to student.

    Which is to say, I broadly agree with your take here, and nice essay.

    Report

    • There was an interesting bit in Paying for the Party where the authors discussed lashing out. The farm kids who often grew up poor, were the first in their families (and maybe towns) to attend college, and also grew up in homogeneous and conservative communities; would direct all their rage at Jewish and LGBT students. Not necessarily from bigotry but those groups were just easy targets for all their incomprehension of college norms including middle class norms.

      Report

    • Historically, academia was usually more conservative than liberal. That mid-20th and early 21st century turned out liberal was something of an accident of history. Before the 19th century, universities weren’t really seen as creators of knowledge. They were supposed to be depositories of knowledge and trainers of clergy and some other professionals and scholars. Naturally this meant that universities were conservative spaces because they were trying to conserve knowledge and they were heavily associated with the elites.

      In the early 19th century, Prussian and other German scholars began to create the modern research university at the time because they thought that universities could be creators of knowledge. Academia was still a very conservative place because most universities were still only for the children of the elite and they were associated with state power. A lot of German far right thought originated in the universities of Late Imperial Germany. There were some radical students but they were a minority American universities had a broader student base but were basically conservative places because they had elite students, the students just wanted to study something practical, or they were associated with Protestant or Catholic Christianity. The football and fraternity culture of modern universities also started in late 19th century America, arguably as a way to reduce student radicalism by making college life fun.

      It wasn’t really until the expansion of university access after World War II that academia became associated with liberals and radicals. During the early Cold War, universities were some of the few places in the United States were Silent Generation and Boomer college kids could express leftist thought openly. As the students grew older, many of the more bookish radicals found academics to be an attractive idea because they could just teach and read their theories. Andrea Dworkin and others of the more radical and abstract 2nd waive feminists would basically have no other way of making a living without academia. Same with other radical boomers of either gender or area of liberal arts studies. Universities were also seen as hotbeds and home bases of the Counter-Culture. This is when academia became associated with liberalism and radicalism. Before the Cold War and the Baby Boom, it was a conservative place.

      Report

      • I didn’t have the specs on this, but this was roughly the kind of trajectory I had an inkling characterized the history.

        Again, it’s not clear to me there’s anything inherently political in a particular direction one way or the other about universities. But they were going to evolve some way (or ways) or other, so they did.

        Also interesting is why universities seem to have such uniform political and overall cultures across the country (with the exception of Christian colleges and self-consciously conservative universities a la Liberty). Probably a class analysis is useful here.

        Report

        • Teaching has always been a popular profession for minorities or working class majority people trying to get into the middle class. University level teaching has a much higher level of prestige than all other forms of teaching. During the post-World War II hey day, it also had a lot of good benefits. Professors always had a reputation of being on the eccentric side even when universities leaned conservative, so non-conformist and social misfits can hold jobs their easier than elsewhere and still earn a not bad living. This is why universities might skew left.

          Report

          • the graduate school gatekeepers for most of specialties (but not all, econ is probably the biggest exception) skew heavily left, so it’s self-sorting as well. if you can’t at least play the game well enough, you’re not going to get very far. and given overproduction of humanities phds who want that brass ring of the tenure track, not playing the game is giving up before you’ve even played.

            my wife was told to include lenin in her thesis (about 20th century irish feminist writers) because it would play good with more traditionalist publishers and committee members. this example is not even remotely remarkable.

            such is life.

            Report

  6. The Roman Catholic Church never felt threatened by evolution or science like the Protestant Churches did because the Roman Catholic Church never believed in a plain, literary reading of the Bible. They always thought that Bible had to be interpreted with proper scholarship. One of the Roman Catholic Church’s more valid arguments against Luther and other early Protestants was that if you allow everybody to interpret the Bible and encourage a plain text reading of it than your going to get all sorts of weird and wacky notions of what the Bible says. Since the Roman Catholic Church never believed in a plain text reading of the Bible than they would naturally feel less threatened by science.

    Report

    • Biblical literalism is only indirectly the fault of the reformers. They weren’t literalists, either. This was not what Luther meant by Sola Scriptura. Literalism is more of an 18th-19th century phenomenon, in reaction to the Enlightenment and typically as run through semi-educated preachers. The Reformation was a necessary precondition for this to occur, but it wasn’t what the reformers were aiming for.

      Report

      • Catholic leadership was able to see where things were going to go though. A lot of the criticism of the Reformers was that many of things the Catholic Church saw as important like penance or the Church hierarchy were not in the Bible and they wanted a Christianity stripped down of everything extra-Biblical.

        Report

        • What the Reformers wanted is a moving target, as it depends on the individual involved, and where in the process he was. Luther initially wanted a reform within the church, but that didn’t go far.

          That being said, hierarchy was the big issue. Indulgences and the underlying premise of works righteousness were the proximate issues. Once things got rolling a bunch of other things were thrown into the mix.

          My tradition, the Lutheran, generally took the position of tossing out stuff considered contrary to scripture, but keeping stuff upon which scripture was silent. So there was (and is) no theoretical objection to the church being hierarchical, or even that the Bishop of Rome is the top guy. This also is why our liturgies are so similar.

          The Reformed tradition took the more radical position of throwing out everything it did not consider to be mandated by scripture. Hierarchy was part of this, though in practice they have their own forms of hierarchy. This is also why their liturgies, inasmuch as they have any, are so different.

          Report

        • I would modify this only to specify that we are talking about certain strands of Protestantism and Atheism. Other strands of Protestants roll their eyes at the whole thing. I find Fundamentalist Atheists particularly tedious in conversation.

          Report

        • I have occasionally met very robust Roman Catholics who are probably of the same tribe as Biblical literalists, although that’s not the right term. it’s more like they seem to have a notion that the Pope is always right, except for the one from Vatican II and maybe the current Pope. I say “seem to” because I don’t really know them personally and haven’t asked what they believe. I just encountered them once at a book talk given by Garry Wills.

          Report

  7. Given that my freshman summer reading at my southern liberal arts college was The Kite Runner, which featured a graphic male-on-male rape scene, I wonder if a controversy like this was quietly going on without my being aware of it at the time.

    Report

    • My high-school freshmen honors class was assigned “Kaffir Boy”, which included a scene of male child prostitution alongside its other depictions of the horrors of apartheid South Africa.

      The assigned reading was cancelled, our books were confiscated by the school, and the teacher was let go at the end of the year.

      Report

  8. This is really outstanding, Burt.

    One of the things I noticed was that the reading suggestion you got was from the A&S school, not from the university. I have been unable to determine if the Duke reading went to all incoming freshmen, or only to their A&S freshmen (Duke has two schools, one A&S and one engineering). While this particular debate is about conservative students who find the material offensive, it is quite common to find similar complaints from engineering students who find such material irrelevant. Those arguments are, IMO, largely the result of confusion about universities that are doing two different things: there’s the traditional “college education” thing, and then there’s the four-year trade-school “engineering” thing. When the latter was becoming a thing, it looked enough like what colleges already did, and was so obviously lucrative, that universities went into that business.

    I’d be inclined to have incoming engineering students read Sobel’s Longitude, but that’s just me.

    Report

  9. Maybe this is just my STEM bias showing, but is Fun Home, as a work of fiction, really copmarable to Dawkins in terms of educational value? I imagine that indoctrination was a goal behind the selection of both works, but my suspicion is that it was a much heavier factor in the choice of “Fun Home,” which doesn’t also have the advantage of teaching important scientific concepts.

    I mean, I’m sure Fun Home is a fine and worthy work of literature, but…does it actually teach students anything, or just encourage them feel the right way about certain issues?

    Report

    • The freshman class that came after mine was asked to read Cry, the Beloved Country. Whatever sin of indoctrination you wish to impute to the selection committee is surely magnified with such a choice as compared to Blind Watchmaker. As is noted above, sparking a degree of controversy is likely to be viewed as a feature rather than a bug.

      Report

      • I didn’t intend any particular moral judgment with my use of the term “indoctrination.” I just meant that they likely selected the works for the purpose of encouraging students to embrace their own preferred positions on certain issues.

        Report

        • they likely selected the works for the purpose of encouraging students to embrace their own preferred positions on certain issues

          I doubt it. I bet they select the works to give students a common easily accessible experience to discuss during the awkward “I no longer live at home but am instead surrounded by thousands of people I don’t know” phase. As says, being controversial/interesting is a good selection criteria for that. Being doctrinaire wouldn’t be.

          Not sure what the preferred position is on this. The book tells a biographical story, so at best the position is “I exist.” Heck, the closeted gay man has relationships with teenage boys he teaches. Anti-gay stereotype!

          Report

        • The idea that a book should be considered “indoctrinating” by virtue of having a Lesbian main character is a little bit silly when we’re talking about college students in 2015.

          Given that, as I understand it, the book focuses pretty intently on the way a Daughter’s relationship with her Father changes after she moves away to college and becomes more free to forge her own identity, I think its appeal as a choice for incoming freshmen is pretty obvious and not particularly connected with its Queerness.

          Report

  10. This piece was an excellent read on a number of levels. Maybe it’s a part of my own Catholic baggage but I can relate to the difficulties of navigating that weird terrain where you recognize the inherently supernatural (i.e. hard for rational people to believe) aspects of the religion and try to square it with the passionate teaching of secular subjects by clergy and nuns.

    All that aside, I do agree with concerns about overly catering to students. I try not to believe reports I hear about things as extreme as not teaching rape in a crim class in law school. It caters too much to my own biases about political correctness run amok. If it’s really happening then the answer to any complaining student I think should be if you can’t handle this you aren’t fit to be a lawyer full stop. I only did crim very briefly at the beginning of my career but even outside of that as an attorney you have to deal with challenging subjects and even more challenging personalities in virtually all areas of practice. A lawyer can’t be trusted to appropriately serve a client if a tough subject in the class room flusters him.

    I’d say the same thing about people who think they should be exempt from undergrad assignments due to content. If you can find a way to pass without getting the credit then so be it, but again, I think the response is that college isn’t for everyone.

    All that being said, I do wonder how prevalent these attitudes are outside of certain groups on campus. Of those that do exist I tend to think that their views rarely survive first contact with the outside world.

    Report

    • All that being said, I do wonder how prevalent these attitudes are outside of certain groups on campus. Of those that do exist I tend to think that their views rarely survive first contact with the outside world.

      Added to that, I also wonder how much of this can really be attributed to the higher deference the law seems to be giving to religious beliefs. I read Burt as saying there’s some causal connection. (But that may be a misreading on my part. Maybe he’s just warning against the greater deference and using that undergraduate as an example.)

      Report

      • I’d defer to Burt on that question and I do not have any familiarity with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act so can’t really opine.

        I do think there might be some parallels to the debate over whether or not the state should recognize more positive rights (as oposed to negative rights).

        Report

      • You may want to re-read the first several sentences from part VIII, the conclusion, where I try to paint the micro-phenomena of the body of the essay on a larger canvas.

        The basic idea is that law and culture are in an endless mutual feedback loop: for instance, Title VII didn’t make people stop being racists in their hearts, but it did contribute to making racism be an attitude that is not socially acceptable to express.

        Report

  11. I had to sleep on this, @burt-likko; it’s a tour du force.

    I get some hint that you’re seeing the shoreline of Hobby Lobby that I detected in the fog: People can be expected to continue absent themselves from cultural things that they don’t like, citing religious belief. Which is a purely subjective and internal phenomenon.

    Absenting themselves is probably a lot more acceptable than imposing their beliefs. Not reading the book is a lesser evil than banning the book.

    Report

  12. This is an excellent post, with a lot I need to think about, but in the grand tradition of the internet, I’ll take a minor point and harp on it:

    I’m pro-canon. Subject matter experts have worked out, over the years, in every academic discipline, a constellation of works that convey the core of what a subject of study is about. I’m generally in favor of expanding the canon so it isn’t made up of only perspective of dead rich white dudes. That doesn’t mean expurgating the writings of those dead rich wide dudes — some of them had very important things to say, accomplished critical advances in knowledge, and these are things that we ought to study. We add to the canon to our intellectual enrichment; we delete from it at our intellectual peril.

    To me, one of the best things about a canon is that it sums up the minimum base of knowledge in a particular field. One learns a canon, and then one specializes in something. And maybe even that specialization has its own canon, but still, one learns ever deeper stuff through one’s own research or career or whatever. all this is to say, I believe any workable canon has to delete some things to make room for others, or no one would have time to learn the canon.

    Report

  13. I was too crazy busy yesterday to give this the proper attention is is due. Like Zic, I need to digest this a bit.

    But I can say right now that the opening synopsis above the jump is best enjoyed by hearing it in Peter Falk’s voice, as he reads it to Fred Savage.

    Report

  14. An outstanding essay, and I pair this with my recent reading of Richard Rohr where he speaks about the Franciscan tradition of emphasizing orthopraxy (correct doing) over orthodoxy (correct thinking).

    It strikes a chord with me, since I have been thinking for a while now that the just society is not going to be created through an ideology, regardless of how well thought out or considered it may be.
    We political types tend to think in fundamentalist theological terms, where issues such as “how to accommodate differing moral intuitions?” are seen as resolvable into universal theories of justice. Sort of like how fundamentalist religions emphasize adherence to doctrine as the highest and best outcome.

    I am thinking more how justice is reached through negotiation and compromise, where values are sifted and weighed, and some are privileged as universal while others reduced to personal preference.
    And there isn’t a theory that can predict always and everywhere how to discover the ideal compromise, since people themselves change over time, and value different things at different times. A just set of practices today can become unjust over time, as attitudes and values change.

    Which brings me back to Franciscan tradition that states that we are called, not to help our fellow persons, but to share their life. Our highest calling is to engage and develop a bond of communion with each other, even with those, and especially those, who are different and often objectionable.

    The RFRAas it is being used is a dangerous mix of that fundamentalist religious thinking together with a fundamentalist political thinking, where rights are absolutes, and the only solution is disengagement- not reading this book, not hearing those words, not associating with those people, not working for that company.

    In any case- this is still a work in progress.

    Report

  15. Pingback: I didn’t skip the readings | Hit Coffee

  16. Pingback: I Didn’t Skip the Readings | Ordinary Times

Comments are closed.