And the telos--the end towards which all this energy and study is directed--is that these learned individuals will go into the world, go their various ways, pursue various careers, meet with various levels of success, and yet maintain an understanding and appreciation of humane learning--that which makes us human. The arts--visual and performative, politics, contemporary trends, historical awareness, FOOD, for that matter, and yes even religion.
So the first question; what should the kids read?
The second question stems from this first: Do they need to read that?
It turns out Duke University required its 2015 freshmen class to read Alison Bechdel's Fun Home: A Family Tragicomedy. As expected, some students protested, calling it pornographic. As also might be expected, others leapt to defend Duke's required reading. It's not pornographic, the students protesting are just close-minded, precisely the people who needs their minds opened by such reading. Thus, an impasse.
So what's the hubbub about? From Amazon.com, the Publishers Weekly review:
This autobiography by the author of the long-running strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, deals with her childhood with a closeted gay father, who was an English teacher and proprietor of the local funeral parlor (the former allowed him access to teen boys).Fun Home refers both to the funeral parlor, where he put makeup on the corpses and arranged the flowers, and the family's meticulously restored gothic revival house, filled with gilt and lace, where he liked to imagine himself a 19th-century aristocrat. The art has greater depth and sophistication that Dykes; Bechdel's talent for intimacy and banter gains gravitas when used to describe a family in which a man's secrets make his wife a tired husk and overshadow his daughter's burgeoning womanhood and homosexuality. His court trial over his dealings with a young boy pushes aside the importance of her early teen years. Her coming out is pushed aside by his death, probably a suicide. The recursively told story, which revisits the sites of tragic desperation again and again, hits notes that resemble Jeanette Winterson at her best. Bechdel presents her childhood as a "still life with children" that her father created, and meditates on how prolonged untruth can become its own reality. She's made a story that's quiet, dignified and not easy to put down.
Reproduced here without any claim to ownership.
So let's get this "straight" (bad pun, I realize): Duke University, one of the nation's premier private education institutions, required its entire in-coming first year class (approximately 1600 students) to read a lesbian's memoir of her funeral-parlor-operating, closeted homosexual father. Quite frankly, instead of decrying "pornography!" the students instead should have questioned the relevance of having to read this at all.
Now I am sure the cognoscienti at Duke have a rationale for choosing Bechdel's book. Academic freedom is a good, and Duke, maintaining a historical tie to the United Methodist Church, certainly possesses to the right to assign books of its choosing. Fine, I get that. Furthermore, I would not be surprised if some students--Duke or anywhere else--actually benefited from reading Bechdel's biography. The Spirit moves where It will. If education is to be "liberal"--that is freeing, liberating--and not merely ideologically liberal, then sure all sorts of books should be read. Student comfort, while important, should not be the first metric by which curricula are constructed. After all, as a 19-year old sophomore at Wabash College, one of my week's reading included Roman history, Sophocles, Locke, Alice Walker's The Color Purple and Anne Sexton's "In Celebration of My Uterus."
But, and this is the point, those weren't the first things on the table. To get there--different kinds of feminism--we had previously read through (in a year-long, two semester, course) Confucius, Lao-Tzu, the Dhammapada, chunks of the Old Testament, Thucydides, and Euripides' Trojan Women. Then we had moved through Voltaire, Darwin, Nietzche, Freud, Wilfrid Owen's poetry, Wiesel's Night, and Bronowski's Ascent of Man (with the jaw-dropping conclusion here (starting at 47:15), which left me devastated). THEN came feminism.
With predictable results, quite frankly. Male college sophomores aren't know for their sophisticated analysis of anything, let alone feminism. The point, though, was that feminism's deconstructions came from somewhere and intended something, some goal. Perhaps not the same goal as a bunch of midwestern guys more concerned about baseball and weekend fun, but a goal nonetheless. Furthermore, we were able to ascertain feminism deriving its power from the same forces that defended humanity in the face of the twentieth-century's modern butchery. So, in a variety of ways and at different levels, we got it. Duke's selection of Bechdel attempts to achieve that last goal without any of the foundation work beforehand, and in the process undermine any reason to return to such foundations and appreciate them for what they are. Is Voltaire or Locke or Thucydides the end-all, be-all in literary canons? No, of course, not--but to consider yourself learned it might help possessing some familiarity with them. NOT that such possession makes you one more dollar than the next person who doesn't have that knowledge, but rather in so knowing you become a better person who can then help others live their lives. Not in a condescending manner--"here, let me help you, poor benighted fool--but rather like Plato's philosopher who returns to the cave to free his fellows into the light, despite their initial opposition. Besides, not everybody has time to read all the material listed above, but some sort of progression, a foundation, still seems necessary.
There are dissenting voices, those calling for a return to the classics. Learn the classics--the "great books"--first then proceed to whatever texts and traditions you choose. This way everybody--students and teachers, and really everybody else, too--will have some sort of blueprint onto which they can plot other choices, including books like Bechdel's. David Brooks has called for a return to just this sort of liberal learning. And First Things recently reposted this 2000 article by Peter Leithart praising the liberal arts as "useless learning." It's precisely because we start with the classic--and now, misleadingly, 'useless'--that we appreciate the contemporary. After all, Catholic Memes and Eye of the Tiber score all their points precisely because their creators possess great faith and learning. It takes acute theological minds to crack the jokes as those sites do. Without the tradition (in these cases, the Roman Catholic one!), it's just more internet verbage.
This is where Duke's mandatory reading gets it wrong, and actually backwards. Using Bechdel first falls into the fetishization we've acquired with the weird, bizarre, and marginal. A disturbing national trend, fueled perhaps by our 24/7/365 iPhone world, favors the tweetably weird over the much more common, but boring, reality. Many of my students' only familiarity with "religion"--and this at a college with "Saint" in its name and a Catholic heritage--focuses solely on the Westboro Baptist Church, the Duggar family, and maybe Jim Jones and Peoples Temple. Right--hated anti-gay bigots, one Arkansas family with 20 kids and a reality TV show, and our nation's best known religious group suicide.
Right--all the variety in the religious realm of humanity to study, and that's what many come up with: God Hates Fags, 20 kids, and purple kool-aid.
*sigh* Once more into the breach, my friends, once more...
Bechdel's book, without any prior intellectual work, become yet one more weird thing college students tweet to their friends. Questions of a family's struggles, economics, regional identities, and yes even sexuality are important for college students to consider--and even wrestle with. Just requiring everyone to read Aquinas doesn't guarantee the pews will be filled. But without some sort of preparation--what first-year assignments like Duke's are supposed to initiate and provide--the desired goal of a increasingly better educated and thus sophisticated population remains distant. In fact, without that foundation books like Bechdel's become yet one more buzzing sound that students tune out in order to attend to their fantasy football leagues, video games, Pinterest, and Candy Crush Saga. That is a great irony; that those who claim to have wrested the mantle of education from its oppressive previous owners have in turn become the next generation of authorities to be ignored.
That, too, must stop. Humane education remains so relevant and necessary in these days of conflicted global and domestic policies. We need to keep reading, thinking, and discussing--just like we did (and hopefully still do) in college. But what we read does matter, and all I'm saying is that Bechdel's book really isn't the best place to start.
Perhaps instead Duke first-year students should read Flannery O'Connor. Hey, she's Southern (and Catholic!), and her stories have great endings like this and this. That's a different kind of weird, I suppose. Catholic weird. Like they say in The Big Lebowski, "at least it's an ethos."