As college students across the country stream onto campuses this week, Duke University's The Chronicle reports that "some" members of the class of 2019 had refused to read a book assigned to them this summer as part of the elite school's Common Experience Summer Reading program.
Many colleges have similar programs. In preparation for my first year of college in 1989, I myself read Jonathan Kozol's Rachel and Her Children: Homeless Families in America and Nadine Gordimer's Something Out There. I can still remember my new classmates' passionate arguments about South Africa's apartheid regime and chronic homelessness in New York. This summer, the first-years at the college where I now teach are reading Piper Kerman's Orange is the New Black. At least they better be.
It's unclear how many of Duke's 1,750 incoming students skipped Alison Bechdel's highly acclaimed 2006 graphic-novel-style memoir, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. That anyone admitted to a top university would purposely ignore their first assignment is, first and foremost, sad. These students have denied themselves a great read. The book, beautifully written and illustrated, won numerous literary awards and inspired a Broadway musical that swept the Tonys this spring. It's a bittersweet story detailing Bechdel's life growing up with a closeted gay father "who killed himself a few months after I came out to my parents as a lesbian." Heavy stuff, for sure, but higher education is about examining the heavy stuff. Through her unique lens, Bechdel explores the themes of family, growing up, and self-acceptance; themes we all can relate to.
What's really disappointing, however, are the reasons students have given for refusing to read the book. According to The Chronicle, they think it's pornographic. When I heard that, I grabbed my copy off the shelf to find the porn I apparently missed the first time around. I'm not sure how one labels a book pornographic without actually reading it, of course. Maybe it's a new twist on the Justice Stewart test: I know it when I don't see it? Either way, it represents the antithesis of education, which requires both the opening of books and the opening of minds.
It's true that a few panels of gray-scale drawings in the 232-page book do depict partial adult nudity and consensual sexuality. Certainly no one is exploited or objectified, making these examples far less offensive than your average love scene—both in popular culture and in classic literature. Which leads me to the conclusion that it's not really the illustrations that have caused this most recent controversy, but rather the queer-identified people depicted in them.
Do these students think that four panels depicting partial nudity or sex between women will make them gay or skew their sense of self? Do these students think that four panels depicting partial nudity or sex between women will make them gay? Do they think that exposure to such drawings will skew their sense of self? Or deep down, do they fear that their homophobia will become hard to justify once they've been confronted with it in such an honest and empathetic setting? College students are adults and should be able read about sex and sexuality. They should be able to read about the lives of all kinds of people, because the reality is people identify across a wide spectrum of sexual identities. All of our stories matter.
Education—especially higher education—obliges us to read, hear, and see things that we might not otherwise encounter. Anyone committed to learning must therefore engage with people, perspectives, ideas, and experiences that may at first seem strange, confusing, or problematic. Learning means we attempt to understand—it doesn't mean we have to like everything we're exposed to. We can disagree with the authors of the books we read, but we have to read them first. Worthwhile ideas and values can withstand exposure to other ideas and values. But those seeking a university education should be prepared to have the worldview and perspectives they developed at 18 challenged and expanded. If not, why go to college? Or read? Or think?
If we aren't being challenged, we aren't learning. If we don't do the work, we fail. The Duke students who refused to read Fun Home have already failed. Willfully. Perhaps Duke should dismiss them, as they're unwilling to take on college-level study. Let them reapply when they are ready to face the dangers presented by a comic book.