Duke University

A Duke of a problem …

Duke LogoYou don’t often expect religious trouble at respected institutions of higher education, but Duke has been on the receiving end of some good ol’ fashioned religious trolling from its own freshmen.

North Carolina’s Duke University is one of the best universities in the United States.

While the institution has Methodist and Quaker foundations, it is a nonsectarian, independent university, which produced no less than eight Nobel laureates. It is in the top ten universities in the United States and considered highly internationally.

The Chronicle, Duke’s independent undergraduate daily newspaper, which has been continually published since 1905, recently reported a freshmen storm brewing on campus over a book in The Duke Common Experience Summer Reading Program, designed to give incoming freshmen from all over the world a shared text to discuss as they begin their studies.

Fun HomeThe offence?

A book.

Fun Home, A Family Tragicomic, by Alison Bechdel.

The book is an illustrated autobiographical novel which has won multiple awards, received broad literary praise and became a Tony Award-winning stage-play.

It is the story of Bechdel’s relationship with her father, an English teacher and director of a funeral home, which she and her family call the ‘Fun Home.’ Later, when Bechdel comes out as lesbian, she discovers her father was also gay, leaving her with a ‘legacy of mystery’ to explore.

I can’t help but wonder if the LGBTI subject matter of the book played a significant role in the events that unfolded.

The offended?

Some Christian students …

The issue?

The Chronicle reported on Brian Grasso’s outright refusal to read the book ‘because of the graphic visual depictions of sexuality.’ He went on to say that ‘I feel as if I would have to compromise my personal Christian moral beliefs to read it.’

Grasso posted his explanation on the Duke University Class of 2019 Facebook page, which is a members only community. He further noted ‘Duke did not seem to have people like me in mind. It was like Duke didn’t know we existed, which surprises me.’

Speaking to The Daily Beast, Grasso reportedly further stated ‘[o]bviously, the purpose of Fun Home is literary and not pornographic in nature. However, I still hold that personally, it would be dishonoring to God for me to read it and to view it.’

Another freshman, Jeffrey Wubbenhorst, who also refused to read the novel viewed the novel in a more puritanical fashion and stated ‘[t]he nature of “Fun Home” means that content that I might have consented to read in print now violates my conscience due to its pornographic nature.’ (emphasis added)

Given Duke is as liberal as a southern private university can be in the United States, this story has shades of an atheist signing up for religious studies at a Christian university and then kicking up a fuss about the bible making its way onto the reading list.

But on a more serious note, this kerfuffle raises the very serious question as to what extent should institutions of higher education censor or restrict their curriculum to accommodate the religious ‘sensitivities’ of potential students?

There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance.
Socrates (469-399BC)

Arguably, none.

Duke is an independent educational institution of higher learning designed to challenge and inform. It can’t do that by censoring or restricting study materials on the basis of the potential religious sensitivities of students. One person’s ‘Christian moral beliefs’ is another person’s ‘religious ignorance’.

Institutes of higher learning should never be limited by personal religious beliefs. Higher education, and education of any kind, is not designed to affirm personal faith or untested religious beliefs. Education is about seeking and building knowledge, understanding, and critical faculty.

‘Fun Home’ contains sexual themes, nudity and other challenging subjects. Just like real life. God forbid a Christian be exposed to challenging subject matters at an institution of higher learning. One can only hope none of the complaining students will come across a geology or biology textbook on campus, because then they will be in for a real shock!

He that knows nothing doubts nothing.
George Herbert (1593-1633)

As for the suggestion the text involved is ‘pornography,’ I am not even sure where to start. Classic and modern literature, as any other art form, is reflective of the human experience, and there are few things more deeply embedded in the human experience than human sexuality. The list of literature that traverses that subject matter would be endless. The literary exploration of human sexuality does not equal pornography.

Arguably, these reactions are the clearest indication these young people are in desperate need of an education that will expose them to new ideas and expand their worldview.

It’s notable that last year, in neighbouring South Carolina, the College of Charleston was defunded to the tune of $52,000 and the University of South Carolina lost $17,142 in funding at the hands of a Republican controlled legislature for daring to assign the same book for their students. Following an outcry those funds were ‘restored’ but under the condition the schools can only use the money to teach the US Constitution and similar founding documents.

The conservative, religious storm in a teacup that rages around ‘Fun Home’ appears to be yet another skirmish in the long running culture war waged by religious fundamentalists against our liberal, secular society, aimed at educational and other public institutions to conform to the ‘religious morality’ of fundamentalist interpretations of religion.

All great truths begin as blasphemies.
Annajanska (1919), George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)

Duke University is not alone in grappling with increasing incidents of religious freedom and religious morality being used to attack public institutions and entire sections of the community. The events at Duke are symptomatic of a resurgence of religious interference in public affairs by fundamentalist Christians.

Unless we are happy to slowly morph into Christian versions of Iran or Saudi Arabia, we must continue to resist any such attempts designed to force fundamentalist religious morality on our liberal, secular Western institutions and societies.

This segment from ‘Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,’ which aired on 23 August 2015, further highlights the issues arising from ‘religious freedom’ being utilised by fundamentalist Christians the erode the very foundations of our liberal, secular democracies.

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