BY CHRISTOPHER KOREY
While it came as a shock to hear of the retribution being dealt out by our Legislature because of curricular choices we made on our campus, I have become accustomed to the irrational pronouncements of our state government. I am more troubled by the idea that this same state of mind is taking root here on our campus and the implications of this for curricular censorship on the College of Charleston by our politically appointed Board of Trustees.
As a member of our College Reads committee and the director of the First Year Experience, I have been intimately involved in the selection of the book and supporting the campus co-curricular programming. Our use of "Fun Home" this year as our campus College Reads book was aligned with our dedication to creating first-year students who will be successful college students and future citizens of our state and country. Research shows that students who engage in open discussion of difficult questions and ideas with their peers and faculty will build the habits of mind that improve their future success. This is conversation - not indoctrination.
"Fun Home" is an award-winning book that, despite what you have heard, is a thoughtful, nuanced exploration of identity and self-understanding in someone who is the same age as our students. It was roundly criticized by the College of Charleston Board of Trustees as being inappropriate for our students. That it was pornography. That they were not advocating banning books, but this book is clearly too much for a first-year student to handle. That we cannot discuss these issues even at a time in which our campus climate and those of campuses across the country are decidedly unfriendly to LGBT students.
This year, the campus and its students have had and continue to have important conversation about topics found in the book. Conversations from a diverse point of view. Students have indicated, that despite its geographical location, our choice of this book reinforced to them that we are a campus of open discussion on important issues. Several students shared that our choice of "Fun Home" allowed them to share and discuss their own identities for the first time in their lives. That is the type of transformative learning that our campus should be known for. Yet the pronouncements from our board about this book, and the recent legislation, make it clear that our ability to define our curriculum is now being questioned and that we are entering a time where our academic community is slowly being told what we should be allowed to teach.
So it should come as no surprise to our campus community that our common reading program is withering even though the College Reads committee of staff and faculty has chosen "The Good Soldiers" by David Finkel as next year's common read. It appears that the board may be preventing this choice and wants to ensure that future choices, if the program continues to exist, receive the board's explicit approval. In fact, they've already suspended funding that had been allotted to the 2014-2015 College Reads program, leaving 4,000 books unpaid for in our campus bookstore. For what reason?
"The Good Soldiers" is a moving portrait of men who fought in the surge during the war in Iraq. It is not an anti-war book or a book with a liberal agenda, but rather an examination of young men and women and what they do in extraordinary circumstances. It is a book that provides a window into the lives of men and women of the same age as our first-year students and asks us to examine their experience. Yet despite the importance of this book, it seems the board is identifying it as also too much for our first-year students.
Is it possible that we have reached a point on our campus where we can ask young people to serve their country with honor and valor, but we cannot ask that they and their peers talk of the experience. We cannot discuss the nature of their service and the brother/sisterhood that was formed in fulfilling their duty. We cannot share in their losses and their triumphs. We cannot begin to understand how it was that they could risk their lives and have others give their lives to protect their units. We cannot understand as citizens what it is we ask of our service men and women, and when we should ask it of them. We cannot help those wounded veterans recover from their traumas by allowing them to share their narratives with their fellow Americans. We cannot be inspired by those who have seemingly lost everything yet still go on as members of our society.
Our board of trustees is suggesting that we cannot do any of these things in our classrooms or on our campus. And yet we live, work and play among current and past service members. We are from families who have served honorably; my grandfather received a Purple Heart for wounds received in North Africa and Italy during WWII, and I am the son and nephew of men who served in the military during Vietnam. I undoubtedly have colleagues who have been in the military. I have taught veterans in my classrooms and written letters for students attempting to transfer to the academies. We are a city that has a rich military history and deep connections to our armed services.
If the goals of a liberals arts and sciences education are to create thoughtful human beings and engaged citizens, why can't incoming students read a text that asks them to reflect on military service and explore how and why we ask them to sacrifice?
It is an unfortunate time on the College of Charleston campus. We are determining what it is that we represent and what it is that we provide our students.
I have never been more disappointed then I am now in those that have been appointed to lead this historic school into the changing future of higher education. I hope that our college survives their tenure.
Christopher Korey is director of the First Year Experience and Associate Professor of Biology at the College of Charleston.