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Duke Students Balk at Reading Assignment That Conflicts with Their Religious Beliefs

Duke University made headlines recently for something other than their athletic teams: their tremendously “pious” students. When Alison Bechdel‘s Fun Home was placed on the summer reading list, some incoming freshmen balked, feeling the content violated their religious beliefs and deeming the material “pornography.”

Duke University made headlines recently for something other than their athletic teams: their tremendously “pious” students. When Alison Bechdel‘s Fun Home was placed on the summer reading list, some incoming freshmen balked, feeling the content violated their religious beliefs and deeming the material “pornography.”

As the Duke Chronicle reported:

For some members of the Class of 2019, the choice of “Fun Home” as a summer reading book was anything but fun.

Several incoming freshmen decided not to read “Fun Home” because its sexual images and themes conflicted with their personal and religious beliefs. Freshman Brian Grasso posted in the Class of 2019 Facebook page July 26 that he would not read the book “because of the graphic visual depictions of sexuality,” igniting conversation among students. The graphic novel, written by Alison Bechdel, chronicles her relationship with her father and her issues with sexual identity.

“I feel as if I would have to compromise my personal Christian moral beliefs to read it,” Grasso wrote in the post.

But there’s a little problem with this line of thinking: it’s the height of hypocrisy. If these folks have a problem with sex that falls outside of their (fairly recently established) view of “traditional” relationships and morals, the book that guides their faith is also off limits. The Bible is full of depravity. 

Christian blogger Laura Turner went into depth on the subject, listing a slew of stories from the Bible that should cause an equal amount of offense before stating:

I don’t say this to compare the Bible with Fun Home as sacred texts, although I really like Alison Bechdel. I don’t say it to make fun of the Bible or even those silly freshmen posting on Facebook about their morals. I say it because, as with all things, context matters, and Fun Home depicts sex in a way that makes perfect sense within its context. Reading things we disagree with is part of becoming an adult, and certainly part of becoming a college student. If even the Bible addresses sex in explicit, disturbing, and confusing ways, then Christians ought to be able to read this graphic memoir, even if they object to parts of it, and learn something more.

Turner has a point. This refusal to engage with material that is intended to educate students on a form of literary expression and cultural narrative runs counter to the reasons we go to college: to get an education.

Paula Young Lee at Salon might have put it best:

The purpose of going to a university is to encounter different views — a whole universe of them, in fact. Just as reading about pregnancy cannot make you pregnant, learning that homosexuality exists has yet to magically transform any female or gender-neutral reader into a lesbian. And, recent appearances to the contrary, the campus setting still encourages dissent — but only after you, the student, have read the book and form rigorous thoughts based on close attention to the actual content therein. Regrettably, the situation at Duke seems like a convoluted way of shouting, “The dog ate my homework!” and hoping nobody notices you didn’t complete the assigned reading. Which none of these students actually did, and yet they have the cheek to claim the moral high ground?

To their credit, Duke is rolling its eyes as well. In a video released last Monday, Michael Schoenfeld, the university’s vice president for public affairs, put it this way:

With a class of 1,750 new students from around the world, it would be impossible to find a single book that that did not challenge someone’s way of thinking. We understand and respect that, but also hope that students will begin their time at Duke with open minds and a willingness to explore new ideas, whether they agree with them or not.

To be fair, this statement is probably not going to sway the people protesting. But if these students are hell-bent on throwing this tantrum, there’s another question worth asking. This is about staying true to your faith, right? Well, how strong can that faith be if a piece of literature that challenges their understanding of the world is cause for pulling out the smelling salts? If their faith is so delicate that it cannot be questioned, it’s pretty weak sauce to begin with, and far from a justification for this hissy fit.

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