On Mountains and Molehills

Duke University assigned Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir “Fun Home” to its incoming freshmen as a summer reading assignment this year. The summer reading assignment is a standard way colleges prepare their students for reading books they care nothing about. I remember being assigned a book before my freshman year; I remember going to a professor’s house to discuss the book; I remember how forced it felt; but I could not name the book if my life depended on it. Essentially, it’s an exercise where everyone gets to feel intellectual without actually being intellectual.

This all would have passed with nothing more than lots of annoyed, bored freshmen but for a Facebook posting by incoming class member Brian Grasso. Mr. Grasso objected to what he deemed graphic depictions of sexuality (women masturbating and women performing oral sex on one another) in the book, and he refused to read it. It’s unclear how Mr. Grasso learned of the images without reading it, but he labeled it immoral, distinguishing lascivious texts from lascivious images. His social media post caused quite the kerfuffle among other incoming freshmen, and, before you know it, the “controversy” had been picked up by major news outlets, bloggers, and those on any and every possible side this story could have. I now happily stoke the fire.

Let me recap this story for you: A college assigned a book to its freshman class. A student objected, calling the book immoral. That’s it.

Let’s set aside the obvious fact that Mr. Grasso, admittedly very young, has not yet grasped that the college experience revolves around exposure to new ideas one had not considered or had previously discounted. Let’s also set aside the fact that it’s difficult to credit a critic who has not read a book but is ready to deem it immoral. It’s always that way, though, isn’t it? Let’s also set aside the very fruitful area of examination of why Mr. Grasso felt the need to publicize his objections, instead of privately expressing them to faculty or staff at Duke. Mr. Grasso says he posted his objections on Facebook “to comfort those with similar beliefs.” Bless his heart.

Of all the myriad threads of this non-story one can tug on, let’s tug on its elemental nature as a non-story. Is this another internet dust-up forgotten as quickly as it roared to life? Will we all be back to cute cat videos soon? Let’s hope so, but it doesn’t change the fact that it became a story. One snot-nosed kid’s objection to a summer reading assignment. Sure, most of us are drawn to the silly, entitled rationale put forward by Mr. Grasso, including his belief that his professors should warn him of titillating material not because he might consider it offensive or discomforting, but because he considers it immoral, but like rubber-necking on the highway, it just slows down progress for the rest of us.

An unfortunate byproduct of the attention heaped upon Mr. Grasso and his ilk is not a reexamination of their intellectually stunted approach to education, but, rather, it is the further calcification of their closed-mindedness towards those ideas and images they label immoral. And now, surely, Mr. Grasso has friends. He’ll be lauded for his courage, his values. There will be other Mr. Grassos. Over time, if successful, we can whittle down the approved college level reading list to the Bible. Of course, once folks get a load of Song of Solomon, the Bible’s steamy hot chapter, that will be out too. At that point, we can all sit around, look at each other, and enjoy not being offended.

If the goal is to support and advocate for the development in America’s college students an intellectual rigor unafraid to tackle any idea or image, we need to stop breathlessly fretting about one student’s objection to one assignment at one college. It’s not newsworthy. It’s not blog worthy (except for this one). Let’s have the confidence that should come from the knowledge that a great education is one that asks students to examine their values, not hide behind them.

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