In the latest act of buffoonery from The Losing Side, some South Carolina legislators are punishing two different state universities for assigning gay reading material. The current budget on the House floor would partially de-fund both institutions, with the largest punishment going to the College of Charleston for handing out copies of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home to every incoming freshman last year. The University of South Carolina Upstate is also being penalized for assigning “Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio,” which details South Carolina’s first LGBT radio show. The College of Charleston would have $52,000 axed from their state funding; USC-Upstate, the weird sum of $17,162.
These are small figures in the context of the universities’ overall budgets, but rather big figures in the context of bigotry. The budget that includes the cuts easily passed the House Ways & Means Committee, with only one lone voice naying while 20 yayed. Almost more disturbingly, it also passed through a Higher Education subcommittee. It awaits a vote by the overall House of Representatives this week.
Rep. Garry Smith, who introduced the cuts, says, “I think the university has to be reasonable and sensible to the feelings and beliefs of their students.” Because apparently Garry Smith has no idea what college is for. Almost the entire purpose of a liberal arts education is to have your feelings and beliefs challenged. It’s called “critical thinking,” and it also happens to be what a majority of businesses now say is the number one thing they look for—and often find lacking—in new employees.
Smith also gives the classic line about “promoting the gay and lesbian lifestyle,” but reading Fun Home is not about being indoctrinated into the queer world. I’ll tell you for a fact that I know several straight people who have read it and, get this, you guys—they’re still straight.
Conservative students might not even change their minds about sexuality as a whole after they read it. Which is OK. Students will react differently to Fun Home, and that’s what a professor should want. It’s discussing those differences that will be worthwhile. It’s about young people being able to relate to or at least understand, or at the very very least, just see and witness, someone’s life which might not be exactly like their own. Which, I don’t know, I hear might be a useful skill to have in the world.
Reading Fun Home is also not just about lesbians. I hear some other stuff happens in the book.
But regardless, this is all doubly stupid, as Fun Home was encouraged reading for incoming freshmen, but not required reading. Most colleges have this type of recommended reading book for the freshmen class, which some teachers use as part of their first assignments, but many don’t. It’s more just like a “kicking off your critical thinking brainpower” activity, as most of these books deal with some type of diverse or controversial topic. As CNN reports: “If a faculty member assigned the book in class and a student was offended, the students could move to another section where the book was not assigned, according to the school.” Not that it wouldn’t also be just fine if Fun Home actually were required for every student, but Smith appears to not even fully know what he’s fighting against.
Bechdel released this statement:
“I’m very grateful to the people who taught my book at the College of Charleston. It was brave of them to do that given the conservative pressures they’re apparently under. I made a visit to the school last fall for which they also took some flak, but to their great credit they didn’t back down. It’s sad and absurd that the College of Charleston is facing a funding cut for teaching my book–a book which is after all about the toll that this sort of small-mindedness takes on people’s lives.”
When I first heard of this story, I had the same reaction I do to a lot of these stories recently: to simply roll my eyes. With every victory the LGBT community wins overall, attempts like this increasingly sound like embarrassing flailing from a terrified losing class. Whether the South Carolina House approves this budget or not, the universities have said they won’t back down in offering the titles, and you know someone will make a campaign on the Internet to make up whatever funds are lost. These kind of censorship attacks are almost always futile.
But there are a lot of things about this that deserve attention and genuine concern. As an educator, I’ve actually taken a more nuanced view towards censorship lately, or perhaps a more empathetic one. I still don’t condone censorship, but I understand that a lot of people–parents, in particular–just want to be listened to, sometimes. And there are concerns that are valid. For instance, a parent that doesn’t want their pre-teen getting their hands on Fifty Shades of Grey is not a crazy parent. Or sometimes, people don’t want books necessarily censored, but used in better ways, like making sure that Gone With the Wind isn’t assigned just as a classic work of literature, but that its incredible racism is also an inherent and major part of the conversation.
When books are questioned or attempted to be banned at schools or libraries by an individual or small group, the process that follows almost always involves face-to-face conversations, community discussions, a back-and-forth compromise. It can even be healthy and useful. But a government entity unilaterally taking away thousands of dollars over one or two books is a much more threatening thing—to intellectual freedom, to critical thought, to the sovereignty of universities and colleges, to the integrity of the purpose of government itself. It never ceases to amaze me how much power people who never step inside of classrooms have over what goes on inside of them, and how much right they believe they have to that power.
So much about higher education can be problematic, and so much of it does revolve around money, which makes threats like this scary. If the sums of money had been higher and the leaders of the universities more weak willed, the likely outcome could be much different. Like governments, we hope that universities look out for the best interests of human beings as their core mission, but so many of the decisions end up revolving around politics and cash. Just like Garry Smith only actually cares about making a statement to his conservative voter base and his next election, university administrators often don’t promote professors based on how much critical thought they can squeeze out of their students, but how many scholarly articles they churn out. K-12 teachers are almost solely judged on standardized test scores. Sometimes, the whole world seems like bullshit, and the only things left that aren’t liars or manipulators are the books. You can burn them, or ban them, or take away funding because of them. But this is the 21st Century, and whether gay or straight, the people who read them and believe in them are stronger than ever. Seriously, they are.
So just quit it, Garry Smiths of the world. Because the books always win.