Friday, February 17, 2006

Morality of books in higher education today

Think the debates over "racy French novels" and the like of 1876 are over? Think again. From the online academic news site Inside Higher Ed comes an article on a bill under consideration by the Arizona legislature which would chill academic speech in public universities in that state:

When faculty leaders talk about the various versions of the Academic Bill of Rights circulating among state legislators, many single out a bill in Arizona as the worst of all.

The legislation there would require public colleges to provide students with “alternative coursework” if a student finds the assigned material “personally offensive,” which is defined as something that “conflicts with the student’s beliefs or practices in sex, morality or religion.” On Wednesday, the bill starting moving, with the Senate Committee on Higher Education approving the measure — much to the dismay of professors in the state.

The Arizona bill goes beyond the measures that have been pushed in other states — in fact it goes so far that David Horowitz, the ’60s radical turned conservative activist who has pushed the Academic Bill of Rights, opposes the measure. “It doesn’t respect the authority of the professor in the classroom,” he said. “This authority does not include the right to indoctrinate students or deny them access to texts with points of view that differ from the professor’s. But it does include the right to assign texts that make students feel uncomfortable.”

Horowitz’s opposition to the bill is of little comfort to professors in Arizona. Although the legislation has a long way to go before it could become law, the idea that the Senate committee charged with overseeing colleges would approve the measure is upsetting to academics. They are also angry because the evidence cited by lawmakers to support the bill appears to be based on a misreading of an acclaimed novel.

The sponsors of the bill did not respond to messages seeking comment. But local news coverage of the session at which the bill won committee approval quoted Sen. Thayer Verschoor as citing complaints he had received about The Ice Storm, a novel by Rick Moody that was turned into a film directed by Ang Lee. “There’s no defense of this book. I can’t believe that anyone would come up here and try to defend that kind of material,” Verschoor said at the hearing, according to The Arizona Star. Other senators spoke at the hearing, the newspaper reported, against colleges teaching “pornography and smut.”

Actually, there are plenty who would defend teaching The Ice Storm, including the professor whose course appears to have set off Verschoor. The course — at Chandler-Gilbert Community College — was “Currents of American Life,” a team-taught course in the history and literature of the modern United States. The literature that students read is selected to reflect broad themes of different eras, according to Bill Mullaney, a literature professor. For example, students read John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.

The Ice Storm was a logical choice for teaching about the 1970s, Mullaney said, because the novel looks at suburban life at a crucial point in that decade: the collapse of the Nixon administration. While two families’ lives are dissected, Watergate is always in the background and the relationship between private morality and public scandal is an important theme.

Adultery is central to the novel and one of its most famous scenes involves a “key party,” in which couples throw their car keys in bowl, and then pull out keys to decide which wife will sleep with which husband (not her own) after the party. From comments at the Senate markup of the bill, it seems clear that lawmakers had heard about the wife swapping, but Mullaney and others doubt that they actually read the book. If they had, they might have realized that Moody’s portrayal of ’70s culture is far from admiring.

The question for the class is: Should library and information professionals react to such efforts? If so, how? (How have they historically?)


Gillian D. said...

I always thought that part of going to college, and to school in general, was the learning to see other viewpoints and broadening one's horizons and world views. It is a time to challenge what you've been brought up with and learn to defend it if you find it worth defending. Guess I was wrong about that.

We as a society have come a long way in accepting things that were once vile and pornographic, look at swimsuits. These things do cycle though apparently, and i think with the current political environment, we are moving away from intellectualism and openess to new ideas. Looks like we as librarians definitely have work to do.

Gillian D. said...

Some of the parts of this article remind me of a book I just finished. Reading Lolita in Tehran is a look at many things, but among them is the censorship of books in Iran. Like in the last section of the article Greg quoted, some English books were attacked in the University of Tehran for the themes they were thought have had, when in reality the books condemned the ideas (such as the near worship of the careless rich in The Great Gatsby) rather than promoting them as ideals.

Oddly enough, many of the books challenged in Iran were done because of the acts of adultery they contained or implied. Odd how similar Islam and Christianity can be. Luckily we aren't to the point of the extreme censorship and morality squads that are present in Iran.

Deborah said...

The ALA Code of Ethics states, "In a political system grounded in an informed citizenry, we are members of a profession explicitly committed to intellectual freedom and the freedom of access to information. We have a special obligation to ensure the free flow of information and ideas to present and future generations."

So the ALA and its librarian members would definitely side with the academics in Arizona, rather than the legislature. But the Code of Ethics is fairly specific to libraries. Isn't the Arizona bill outside the scope of the ALA? Of course, individual librarians and info professionals can protest such legislation and if they are, in fact, committed to the free flow of information and ideas, it would be in their best interests to oppose legislation like the Academic Bill of Rights.

Kelly said...

Are there any books that don't "conflicts with the...beliefs or practices in sex, morality or religion" of SOMEBODY? Wouldn't almost any book fall into this category?

Lia said...

People of like minds band together. The ALA abhors censorship of any kind and should thus side with Arizona's academia. Libraries often support the college classes, both campus and non-campus (such as the public, since many students, esp. undergrads, use what they know, which many times is the public library). The ALA's Academic Freedom page includes the Academic Bill of Rights and other literature written by the American Association of University Professors, which shows ALA's obvious support. Issues of intellectual freedom overlap everywhere in our culture and an entity that values intellectual freedom should defend it in the academic setting.
I echo Kelly's comment. Whenever I hear about cases of censorship, I shake my head and wonder when the hell people will learn that everything has some element that will offend or disturb and no one will be "safe"? What is a college career that doesn't make the student think or make him/her face uncomfortable truths? But then I have to remind myself that censorship is about control, about maintaining the status quo and it will always exist. That's why organizations like ALA and AAUP and others have to band together and fight our first amendment rights.

Laura Elizabeth said...

Everyone who has posted so far has been blatently against the passing of this bill, but I'm not convinced it qualifies as censorship.

What it forces professors to do is to pick thier assigned readings carefully and with an awareness of the moral sensitivity of his or her students. If there are controversial themes in an assigned reading, the professor should tell the class what they are and justify the selection in spite of their points of contention.

I believe every student has the right to try and censor his or her reading, even when it comes to university literature. If a student came to a professor with a sincere request to read another novel because it offend him or her for whatever reason, the professor needs to respect the student's rights by providing an alternative course of study.

I think that the idea that someone should be forced to read and absorbe something that is offensive to them in an effort to "broaden their horizon" is off the mark. Besides, unless an individual is extremely uncomfortable with the material, it is unlikely that they will request alternative curriculum.

However, it would be a different story if one student being offended by the material forced the professor to change the material for the entire class. I can't decipher from the article if the law would require a change of curriculum for the class or for just the individual student. A change for the entire class would be extreme. If that is the case, I apologize for my rant because requiring a professor to do that would be inappropriate and by all means, Arizona librarians should meet with their state representatives to discuss the issue.

But to ask that professors respect their students right to censor what they are reading, is that really a censorship a librarian should be concerned with?

Kelly said...

I'd have some sympathy for high school kids who were assigned to read something that really upset them, but at the college level students have the freedom to choose their own classes and drop the ones they don't like. If the reading list bothers them, well, no one's forcing them to take the class. I've known people to drop classes because the reading looked too difficult, so why not drop a class if the reading looks too "immoral"?

Laura Elizabeth said...

Dropping or swapping a course right away in the semester might be an option, but what about in those courses that are required for degree completion? Students should have some say in being able to censor their reading without having any academic repercussions.

Emily Schearer said...

I tend to agree with Kelly on this. Changing the required reading for a class could potentially alter what the professor hopes to accomplish and what the student takes away from the experience. Professors don’t just assign things at random (I hope), and their choices for a class are done in order to contribute and dissect the main topics of the course. Although most professors probably would not want to change their assigned reading, I think the majority of them would be willing to compromise with a student if they had strong objections. I guess I just don’t really see this legislation as necessary.

Laura Elizabeth said...

I agree with Emily that perhaps making this an issue of state law may be a bit drastic. I do sincerely hope that all professors would be willing to compromise with a student with strong objections. But if ever there were a case where a student had a sincere objection to the reading material and no compromise were made by the professor, then the matter should be taken to the dean of the department because this is a situation where a student's rights ARE being imposed upon.

One place where this might get complicated is that the line between minorly offensive and truly bothersome offensive can be thin and oftentimes a student might not know that a book is something they are truly uncomfortable reading until they are in the middle of reading it. So the question of how a student is going to know that a book is offensive to their values beforehand becomes difficult to assess.