The Arizona state legislature wants to protect college students from any course materials that might hurt their poor little feelings.
According to Inside Higher Ed:
The legislation … 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 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.”
… 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.
Chandler-Gilbert officials said that Mullaney and all of their professors take a number of steps that indicate that they do respect students’ rights to avoid certain material. Mullaney, for example, had a reference on his syllabus to the controversial nature and “adult themes” of some works, and he draws students’ attention to that reference on the first day, when they have time to switch courses or sections. In the case of the student whose complaint apparently set off the bill, however, he ignored the warning and demanded an alternate book several weeks into the course, saying he hadn’t paid attention when Mullaney noted the material earlier. The student’s mother also called the college president (although the student is over 18).
Mullaney said that he respects the right of students to decide which courses to take, but that students can’t dictate books to be taught. “This is totally unworkable in the classroom,” he said. “If you have students demanding alternative books, and one student is reading one book, and one another, and one another — it doesn’t make any sense in terms of how you teach.”
If the bill became law, he added, professors would have to avoid controversial books so they wouldn’t risk losing control of their reading lists. “I joke that what I’ll do is just teach To Kill a Mockingbird — all the time,” he said.
Faculty and administrative groups are opposing the bill. …
The Arizona Daily Star quoted Senator Verschoor as acknowledging that additional negotiations might be needed. He said that he doubted colleges would follow the bill’s provisions now “because of the whole academic freedom thing.”
Oh yeah, that. The whole academic freedom thing.
Well, all right, it’s not on a par with issuing fatwahs and lopping off heads. But hypersensitive students can dictate what books a professor can assign? A parent complaining about her grown son being exposed to a book with (gasp!) sexual content? One doesn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. Given that this bill is actually moving through the legislature, I think alarm is a more appropriate response.
By the way, Prof. Mullaney shouldn’t be so confident about teaching To Kill a Mockingbird. In recent years the book has been criticized on feminist grounds, for its unsympathetic treatment of a (white) woman accusing a (black) man of rape. And can anyone doubt that if the Arizona legislature gets the bill through thanks to special pleading from affronted traditionalists, it will also end up being used by affronted feminists, minorities, and others?