A week ago, several S.C. House members voted in committee to financially penalize USC Upstate and the College of Charleston for requiring specific books that the legislators objected to.


On Tuesday, Dr. Andrew Geyer leaned back at his desk – a USCA English professor surrounded, of course, by books.


He relishes discussing the entire USCA freshman class and the book, “Into the Wild,” that the students read last summer – the story of a young man who inexplicably died of starvation while walking through Alaskan forests.


The first-year students also are required to continue exploring the book in a one-semester, one-hour class, said Geyer, the program coordinator.


The legislators specifically complained about gay themes in the books used by the Spartanburg and Charleston universities – that they are intended to promote an agenda. That is not the mission in any way, Geyer said. There's a reason USCA's one-hour class is called “Critical Inquiry.”


“If you look at the things employers are looking for, the top one or two are critical thinking and writing ability, and the class addresses that,” he said.


USCA has not introduced books related to gay issues, but that's not the issue, said Geyer and Dr. Jeff Priest, the university's executive vice chancellor for academic affairs.


Priest is concerned about academic freedom that a public institution must have.


When an outside agency gets involved, that can be a challenge, he said.


“It's a dangerous thing to do,” Geyer added. “When you start to let one group decide what the truth is, it goes against everything our country is about. (Most educators) are interested in helping people learn. They're not trying to indoctrinate students.”


The summer reading experience has been around for several years at a number of state colleges.


More recently, the Critical Inquiry program was developed, with books chosen by a committee of faculty, staff members and students with comments from others on campus.


The books making the “finals” often led to strong opinions, but in a productive way – again, within the campus.


The committee works well ahead of time. The book in 2014-15 is “The Other Wes Moore” – the story of two men from New York with the same name.


The author is a former Rhodes Scholar and White House Fellow. He wrote the book after learning the other Wes Moore is serving a life sentence for murder. They have corresponded since then, with fascinating results.


“The Pregnancy Project” by Gaby Rodriguez is also autobiographical.


She wrote about her experience as a high school student – pretending for six months she was pregnant as a way to create awareness of teen pregnancy.


Professors and staff members throughout the USCA campus have worked with small groups of freshmen each semester. Priest did so earlier in the program.


“It was an adjustment for the students,” he said. “The fun part was when they did projects. They got creative, did research and presented final papers.”


Jenny Gilmore, a senior English major, helped freshmen one semester with research at the Gregg-Graniteville Library on campus.


Some just needed an extra push to critical thinking, Gilmore said.


“It's all about getting people to think,” she said. “You have to be opened-minded in any critical-thinking situation.”


Senior writer Rob Novit is the Aiken Standard's education reporter.