In 2002 I was a faculty member at UNC-Chapel Hill when "Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations" was chosen for its common reading program. In the wake of 9/11, one obvious goal was to create a better opportunity to understand an unfamiliar culture than could be gained from the media's focus on its extreme elements.
That book program was similar to ours at the College of Charleston, except that students were actually required to read and discuss the book for two hours on convocation day or to write a one-page essay on why they chose not to read it.
Many months after the selection, controversy was stirred up against it mainly by political pundits and a group called the Family Policy Network, which launched a constitutional lawsuit using students as plaintiffs.
Funding cuts were proposed by the Legislature for any school that did not give equal time to other religions.
Fearing those cuts, the university's board of governors refused to endorse a resolution in support of academic freedom.
These roadblocks ultimately failed and the discussions went forward, with Chancellor Moeser declaring, "Academic freedom is alive and well at Chapel Hill," but the media circus took its toll on the campus.
That controversy was on my mind when, as a member of the College of Charleston's College Reads! committee that chose "Fun Home," I described for the committee chair the controversy that was sure to follow. My description amounted to the question "Is it worth it?"- that is, should we consider an equally worthy book that would not create such a distraction from the goals of the program?
At that moment, I failed to remember clearly that the distraction at UNC became for students either an inconsequential sideshow to the academic exercise or an invaluable supplement to it.
Then, as now, the students shrugged at the "controversy" in the book's content and met with piqued interest to engage in thoughtful discussion about it.
They did not become indoctrinated to a new lifestyle, but they did become a little better informed about the perspectives of others and thereby about their own place in the world.
With my UNC memories jogged by our situation at C of C, I can see that my implied question "Is it worth it?"- which Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell now warns us to consider lest we risk a cultural backlash - was badly misplaced. The answer, from principle and experience, is that it is always worth getting students to talk about important issues that are unfamiliar to them.
It is always worth giving them opportunities to evaluate and go beyond their cultural limits. And, it is always worth exposing prejudice and injustice wherever it is willing to reveal itself.
The benefits of having followed our academic instincts in this situation are many: for our students, in everything from defining a point of unity and creativity to watching a Broadway-bound cast turn an award-winning book into a unique production in support of our campus; for our faculty and staff, in finding its voice and using it to define and defend the school's mission and character; and for schools throughout South Carolina, in creating a rare opportunity for unity and action in support of the unquestionable value of academic freedom and inclusivity in our state.
The costs, on the other hand, inevitably go to the state's image and its economy. The shaping of that image as a cultural backwater with a meddling government could have far-reaching economic effects.
As a New York Times editorial said at the time of the UNC event, "Those seeking to stop a thoughtful learning exercise are jeopardizing the state's reputation, mangling free speech and academic freedom in the bargain."
Imagine that Boeing were set to make its new factory site selection in the coming year - one must wonder how a state government bent on controlling what ideas its citizens are exposed to would affect the decision of a company to bring its business here.
Having lived for several years in Boeing's other base city, I can attest to the role that broad cultural offerings and an empathetic civic life played in attracting and retaining Seattle's workforce.
Charleston has enjoyed the advantage of its appeal as a cosmopolitan city, but this national image is at risk of being eclipsed by the continuing legislative overreach.
Mr. McConnell's question, "Is it worth it?", would seem to have been directed to the wrong people.
Robert Podolsky, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Biology
College of Charleston
Robert Podolsky is also the director of the Grice Marine Laboratory.
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