The South Carolina legislature once again has decided to treat its public institutions of higher education as political playthings.
Two weeks ago it was the SC House unilaterally deciding that the College of Charleston (my employer) and the Medical University of South Carolina should merge, despite that fact that it is a terrible idea on multiple fronts and is primarily a sop to corporate and real estate interests.
This past Wednesday, in an act of unparalleled pettiness, the budget-writing committee for the state House moved to strip $52,000 out of the budget for the College of Charleston and $17,142 from USC Upstate.
The reason? “Assigning books on homosexuality to freshmen.”
A controlling majority of legislators on the committee object to the books chosen for the respective schools’ college reads programs, Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio, which tells the story of the first gay and lesbian radio show in South Carolina history in the case of USC Upstate, and Alison Bechdel’s memoir Fun Home at College of Charleston.
The originator of the proposal, Rep. Gary Smith, told the Associate Press, “I understand diversity and academic freedom. This is purely promotion of a lifestyle with no academic debate."
I could challenge Rep. Smith’s objection to Bechdel’s book in any number of ways. I could say that it was judged one of the best books of 2006 by The New York Times and Publishers Weekly. I could say that it was named one of the best books of the decade by Entertainment Weekly or that it was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award.
Or, I could quote another legislator, Rep. Jim Merrill, commenting on the committee’s vote, "This might make us feel better, but it's kind of stupid."
I’m having a hard time deciding which part of this thing is the stupidest.
Is it the fact that reading a memoir written by a gay author doesn’t actually “promote a lifestyle,” unless Smith means “acknowledges that gay people exist and grow up from children to adults” as a synonym for “promote a lifestyle?”
Is that what Rep. Smith is so upset about, college students being reminded that gay people exist? Is he worried that this exposure to the existence of gay people will warp student sensibilities? Does he think that they are not aware of the existence of gay people? Does he imagine that they are not already friends with gay people or that gay people are not among their families and loved ones?
Or maybe he’s worried that Fun Home will turn students gay, as though its pages are laced with a gay virus.
If so, why was he not worried about the possibility of the 2012 college reads selection, Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer, turning students into vegetarians? Surely this is an affront to meat eaters everywhere.
(Though I note, I can still get a nice pork belly sandwich at half a dozen different spots within half a mile of my downtown Charleston office.)
I wish I could say this makes me angry, but my emotions are closer to sadness. It bothers me every time the legislature confirms the worst stereotypes of the state I’ve now called home for the last nine years. My only hope is that these are the final spasms of retrograde thinking, and legislators are reduced to this nonsense because it’s all they have left.
Sad, too, is the fact that unless they’re meddling in this manner, the South Carolina legislature primarily exhibits neglect toward the college. A decade ago they contributed 30% of the college's budget. It's down to 12% now. The $52,000 is just a down payment on the next reduction, I'm sure.
I guess I have to disagree with Rep. Merrill. It’s more than kind of stupid.
This is criminal-level stupidity.
Twitter can be both stupid and smart.