Funding the state’s universities shouldn’t be based on a personal agenda. But that sensibility was apparently lost on S.C. Rep. Garry Smith, R-Greenville, is pushing for funding cuts to two colleges based on their book selections for the freshmen reading experience.
Members of the S.C. House’s Ways and Mean Committee, the budget-writing committee for the House, approved $52,000 in cuts to the College of Charleston and $17,000 to USC Upstate that were proposed by Smith – essentially because the books acknowledge the existence of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
Lawmakers really shouldn’t be in the position to set the reading requirements for colleges. That kind of micromanaging sets an unsettling precedent for future decisions regarding higher education.
Smith, who is the son of Aiken representative Roland Smith, said the colleges are “promoting one side with no academic debate involved” by selecting those books.
He added that he contacted both schools in Fall 2013 and indicated to them that they could “work” with students and parents to adjust the program or it would then be up for debate in the legislative budget process. Both schools “refused” to do so, he explained.
“What that tells me is that the universities aren’t interested in someone else’s sensibilities, in someone else’s opinions,” Smith said. “What it tells me is that the universities are more interested in pushing an agenda that someone or some people there at the universities are interested in pushing.”
Merely by urging students to read certain books doesn’t mean those schools are pushing a particular agenda or “promoting a lifestyle,” as Smith has stated.
As Alison Peipmeirer explained in a column for the Charleston City Paper, just by reading about DNA, doesn’t necessarily make someone want to be a molecular biologist, and just by reading the works of Shakespeare, it doesn’t make someone want to be a cross-dresser.
Academic freedom – not the kind Smith is promoting – should be a key mission of our state’s universities. That’s why a college education, especially a liberal arts education, truly matters. Students are given assignments aimed at broadening their minds, and legislators don’t need to be the ones making moral judgements about those assignments. That should be left up to the school’s administration and staff.
At USC Aiken, for instance, each book selection is made after a reasoned debate, according to Tom Mack, chair of the English Department at the university. The books at Charleston and USC Upstate were likely chosen with the same kind of attention and examination. College of Charleston Provost George Hynd explained on the school’s website that the school’s selection – “Fun Home” by Alison Bechel – will open important conversations about “identity, diversity, sexuality, and finding one’s place in the world.”
That’s a needed discussion in classrooms full of young adults on the verge of entering the “real world” that exists away from the campus.
Critics have also charged that the book’s sexual themes are too explicit and that taxpayers’ dollars shouldn’t be used in such a matter.
Literary classics written decades ago by acclaimed authors such as Henry Miller – “Tropic of Cancer” and James Joyce – “Ulysses” – certainly contain mature material, but are still considered landmark pieces and are still read in college classes. Those books shouldn’t be pulled from the shelves merely because of the knee-jerk reactions of state legislators.
Our universities should be able to champion academic freedom, and not face punitive measures from the Statehouse because of a particular reading assignment. We should have trust in those institutions to nurture originality, creativity and an understanding of our diverse world.