Freshman Reading Censured

by Jesse Saffron

Last summer, the College of Charleston assigned Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic to entering freshmen as part of a required reading program designed to “promote the idea that liberally educated people read broadly and discuss with one another ideas arising from the books they share.” Bechdel’s book, a graphic memoir describing the author’s experiences with homosexuality and her closeted gay father, was described as pornographic by the Palmetto Family Council, a socially conservative group which criticized the school’s selection last July.

On Wednesday, the South Carolina legislature’s House Ways and Means Committee voted (20-1) to cut $52,000 from the college’s budget, as well as $17,142 from the University of South Carolina Upstate, which also had selected an LGBT-themed book for its freshman reading program. The proposed cuts–which must be ratified by the full House–equal the amount the schools spent on the programs. 

Garry Smith, the Republican representative who initiated the budget cut proposal, told the Associated Press, “I understand diversity and academic freedom. This is purely promotion of a lifestyle with no academic debate.” But another Republican, B.R. Skelton, was more than skeptical of using legislative muscle to change collegiate reading lists: “If we’re going to begin funding institutions on the basis of books they’ve assigned, we’re going down a road we don’t need to go down.” Skelton, a retired Clemson University economics professor, emphasized his point by drafting a satirical proposal that would have given the Ways and Means Committee the responsibility of choosing every book on every state-funded college’s reading list. 

College of Charleston professors, state Democratic representatives, and the ACLU have also expressed their concerns regarding the committee’s vote, arguing that it sets a dangerous precedent. And Jim Merrill, a Republican representative from Charleston, said about the budget cut proposal, “This might make us feel better, but it’s kind of stupid.”