We’re still waiting to find out how the South Carolina Senate will handle the House-approved budget which cuts funds from two public colleges for using LGBT-themed books, including Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, in freshman reading programs. In the meantime, we came across a College of Charleston student’s account of her attempt to defend the book in a Twitter debate with two frustratingly obtuse Representatives.
Shortly after Republican Rep. Garry Smith introduced the budget amendment to cut the College of Charleston’s budget by $52,000, the exact amount needed to fund the annual The College Reads program, CofC sophomore Ashley Sprouse noticed Smith and fellow Rep. Tommy Stringer denigrating Fun Home, comic books, and her school’s faculty on Twitter. Stringer, who we can probably assume has not read the book or any other graphic novel, asked: “Is the instructional ability of CofC teachers so low that they have to use comic books to teach freshman?” Smith rejoined sarcastically that the choice of book “[m]akes you feel good about your tax dollars going to such a[n] upstanding school, huh?”
Sprouse, who has read the book and also happens to live in Smith’s district when she’s not at college, came to CofC’s defense and asked why the lawmaker did not try to exact punishment last school year when The College Reads choice was Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, “a book that promoted a vegetarian lifestyle.” Smith’s response was rather mystifying: “Because a 17-year-old young lady was forced to read a book that called her and her faith a terrorist. That’s why.” For those who have read Fun Home and are scratching their heads right now, Sprouse located the likely source of this complaint:
I assume when he says the book ‘called her and her faith a terrorist,’ he’s referring to a background image of a T-shirt with the words ‘lesbian terrorist’ printed on it. The shirt is worn by the character of Joan, Bechdel’s girlfriend, at what the book calls ‘a one-woman protest.’ The frame also pictures a sign from the protest which reads ‘Keep your God off my body,’ a familiar enough slogan at reproductive rights protests. These images in no way call that reader or her faith a terrorist, and how Smith came to this conclusion I’m unsure.
But Smith wasn’t finished; he continued replying to Sprouse with what seems to be a favorite line of argument, claiming that he could be arrested if he gave Fun Home to a 17-year-old. Sprouse asked if he could cite the relevant law, but instead Smith pointed to specific pages in Fun Home that he considers pornographic. Finally he proclaimed that “academic freedom is not academic totalitarinism [sic]” and added “[t]his was purely about promotion, not debate or critical thinking.” (Promotion of what? The Gay Agenda, we assume.) In her guest column for the Charleston City Paper, Sprouse counters this take on the reading program:
I could not explain to Smith in 140 characters why the College Reads! program is not academic totalitarianism (or teach him how to spell, for that matter). But the program is not being used as a system without opposition — exactly the opposite. It’s meant to spark conversations about controversial topics….A college education — my education at the College of Charleston — is grounded in informed conversation, active disagreement, and respect for others’ opinions.
Judging by her well-reasoned argument we’d say that Sprouse is attaining the well-rounded education that her school hopes to provide, in spite of Smith, Stringer, and their ilk in state government. If the punitive budget cuts pass the Senate, however, a dangerous precedent will be set and future students’ learning may be limited to topics that the legislature approves.
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Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.