Academic Freedom taken behind the wood-pile

College CharlestonThere are so many good reasons to live in South Carolina, especially if you are retired, but there are also many bad reasons. Good weather, low taxes, and fried chicken, however, cannot make up for the stupidity and intolerance inherent in the state. It’s unfortunate that my friends and family scattered around this country regularly hear on the news how my adopted state is such an embarrassment, but after living for thirty years in New Jersey, I’ve gotten used to it. The one thing about South Carolina (and many other places so don’t be too smug) is it’s adherence to ideology at the expense of the truth and it closed-mindedness driving out critical thinking and academic investigation. Here’s another example from J. Bryan Lowder at Slate:

South Carolina Champions Academic Freedom … by Punishing Colleges for Assigning Gay Books

Do you understand diversity and academic freedom? If you’re not sure, you might want to check with South Carolina’s Gary Smith, a Republican state representative, who just yesterday demonstrated his considerable expertise on those subjects by proposing punitive reductions to the budgets of two SC colleges that had assigned books that acknowledge the existence of LGBTQ people.

The books in question are Fun Home, Alison Bechdel’s highly acclaimed account of her childhood (presided over by her closeted gay dad) and her own eventual coming out as lesbian, and Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio, a collection of personal narratives that originally appeared on Rainbow Radio, “South Carolina’s first gay and lesbian radio show.” The College of Charleston and the University of South Carolina Upstate assigned the texts, respectively, as part of their incoming freshmen orientation programs.

According to an AP report, Smith submitted the proposal after he learned that students were not given the option of reading other, presumably non-gay, selections. Such a lack of options, he said, amounted to the “promotion of a lifestyle with no academic debate.” (I can’t imagine what would have happened if a truly propagandistic book like David Halperin’s dangerously seductive How to Be Gay had been assigned—oh wait, I don’t have to.) While even some of Smith’s own Republican colleagues felt the proposal went too far toward academic censorship—one called it “stupid”—the measure has been tentatively approved by the House budget committee.

TreesSmith’s use of “lifestyle” deserves little more than a sigh at this point, but his disturbing vision of the purpose of a university-level education is worth noting. His concern that students aren’t being allowed a choice in their assignments not only smacks of the segregationist logic currently being tried out in various state anti-gay “religious liberty” laws; it also reveals a corporate ideal that has become depressingly common in higher education. Students are consumers and universities are there to provide what the customer wants—or better yet, what they are comfortable with. Forget about challenging unexamined prejudices, and don’t worry about promoting critical thinking skills, a wider and richer understanding of the world, and, indeed, actual academic debate: Students (or perhaps parents) should just be able to strike whatever they don’t like from the syllabus.

The trouble is, if your goal is to excise scary gay stuff, that route pretty quickly gets you to a place where Homer’s Iliad (one of the seminal texts of Western literature) would need to be cut—unless you want Achilles and Patroclus promoting their homoerotic lifestyle all over the seminar table. Smith and his ilk most assuredly don’t want that; and, based on their willingness to entertain this kind of embarrassing intellectual prudery, they apparently don’t want South Carolina college students to come out of the state system any wiser or more prepared for work in a diverse world than when they entered it. If students are indeed customers, let’s hope that a bunch of them start asking to see the manager before another semester passes.

Seeing students as customers in a capitalistic world which applauds greed and profit at any cost rather than encouraging academic freedom, critical thinking, and an high regard for the truth: is this what our education system is becoming? I was at the UC when Mario Savio and Bettina Apthecker seriously questioned the values of the university. Could we have another student uprising today or is it too late and the reward might be a one-way march into the swamp at the point of a fascist brandishing a TEC-9 with a healthy wad of dip between his cheek and gums?

Then again, as the oligarchy expands at the expense of the less privileged citizens, will this country become the scourge of the planet where only our viciousness and military power commands respect from other countries? Here’s a simple question: when will the United States attack Mexico in order to take over the oil and will the rest of the world then refer to that as the day that will live in infamy?

How much freedom do we have remaining that we can afford to lose?

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