Last summer, a conservative group in South Carolina got the vapors when Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home was chosen as an optional summer reading book at the College of Charleston. The Palmetto Family Council proclaimed Bechdel’s graphic novel memoir “shocking” and compared it to summer reading selections at other public institutions of higher ed in the state, attempting to prove that CofC was pushing some sort of liberal agenda. But the College stood firm, reiterating its commitment to intellectual freedom and pointing out that students who did not wish to read the book were not required to do so. The controversy seemed to die down…until this week, when a bill to cut the exact cost of the summer reading program from CofC’s budget passed out of committee in the South Carolina House.
The vindictive bill, introduced by Republican Rep. Garry Smith, would cut $52,000 from the college’s budget for next school year. In the grand scheme of higher education financing, that figure is pocket change–but it just happens to be the amount that would go to fund CofC’s annual The College Reads! program, covering the cost of a copy of the chosen book for every incoming freshman, speaker fees to bring the author or other people related to the book on campus, and materials for events such as group discussions for students who choose to participate in the program. Smith, who claims that Fun Home “could be considered pornography” and erroneously believes that it was required reading, has made no attempt to hide his motivation for cutting that exact amount from CofC’s budget. Keep in mind too that next school year’s reading selection has not even been announced yet, so Smith is effectively trying to use the budget process to institute a blanket ban on any book that may be chosen in the future, simply because he didn’t approve of last year’s selection.
[A]lthough Smith assures us that he understands academic freedom, it’s clear that he doesn’t. This is college. We read all kinds of things. We discuss them. We’re constantly engaging with things that we don’t necessarily agree with. For instance, when I was an undergraduate I had to read The Double Helix, a book by James Watson about his discovery of DNA. It just so happens that Watson is a sexist asshole who wants to eradicate people with disabilities, which, of course, pisses me off. But even though I despise his opinions, I read the book and engaged in thoughtful discussions with my classmates. The whole experience was interesting and useful. That’s what college is about.
Happily, not all South Carolina legislators agree with Smith’s petty tactics. Republican Rep. Jim Merrill said that the bill “might make us feel better, but it’s kind of stupid.” Currently the higher ed budget has only passed out of House committee, so the full House and Senate have not yet voted on it. This means there are still many opportunities for Smith’s colleagues to do the right thing and remove his punitive cuts; we certainly hope they will do so, even though it may require some debate and slow down the budget process a bit. Stay tuned for updates in the coming weeks!
Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.