Phillip W. Magness

Historian – 19th century United States

Freshmen “common reading assignments” and the neglect of subjective literary taste

Today’s Washington Post has an interesting article in which an incoming freshman at Duke University explains why he is refusing to read the graphic novel “Fun Home” by Alison Bechdel. The “Fun Home” assignment is Duke’s version of an increasingly common practice at universities wherein all incoming first year students are given a common book assignment as part of their freshman year curriculum. The controversy around “Fun Home” derives mainly from its depictions of violence, sexuality and a number of other themes that clash with many common conservative religious and moral beliefs. Recognizing that it is not the job of the university, or society for that matter, to insulate individuals from content they may find unsettling or offensive, let me note that there is very little in the particulars of the Duke student’s  argument that I find appealing or convincing. I nonetheless remain deeply sympathetic to his refusal to read the book, even as I disagree with his reasons.

Literary tastes are a highly subjective matter. Some of those tastes trend towards the sophisticated, while others are outright boorish and crude. Most fall somewhere in between. But the appeal of a book (or lack thereof) will also inescapably trace back to the reader’s own subjective preferences. This is in many ways the beauty of the literary marketplace – there is something for everybody, and no need for everyone to read and agree upon the same thing. It is true that certain books, over time, acquire reputations for their quality and broad appeal. The same is true of movies, of art, of the restaurants you eat at, of the brand of car you drive. There are also people who may find a “classic” work simply doesn’t meet their own tastes, but again – subjective preferences are at play.

What rubs me the wrong way about the Duke situation (and practically all similar “common reading” activities for freshmen) is that the assignment actually operates antithetically to the critical thinking skills it purports to develop. The university is essentially saying to the student “we have chosen a book that contains universal relevance to all incoming Duke freshmen” and foisting it upon them as an assignment that discounts the fundamental reality that each and every one of them holds widely divergent literary tastes. Forcing a book upon an unwilling reader with existing aversions to its style or content, whatever they may be, is just about the worst possible way to win that reader over to a particular lesson. Rather it is likely to instill antipathy, reaffirm the original distaste, and impede the reader from the necessary process of self-discovery that is often the genesis of like or dislike for a specific literary product.

It is certainly true that part of the college experience entails encountering ideas that make the reader uncomfortable or challenge his/her worldview. But these ideas are also encountered in a classroom where there is a wide degree of choice on the student’s part to attend. That is one of the distinct beauties of the university: you pick what subjects you want to study (within a delineated but highly flexible framework, to be sure). You also pick your classes based on differences in the syllabi and reading lists as well as the reputation of the faculty. And if you find yourself in a classroom where you are fundamentally at odds with the material or instructor, there is always the final option of exit – to withdraw from that section and take a different class with a different professor.

By stipulating that all incoming students must share in a common reading assignment, a university is removing the very same freedom of choice that differentiates its educational model from something far more formulaic, ineffective, and intellectually stifling. A common required reading assignment is not the stuff of college level discussion – it’s actually a vulgar relic of high school, where texts are specified by bureaucratic boards and lesson content is spelled out in a politically-tinged teacher’s manual without any real attentiveness to the individual intellectual interests of their captive student audience.

As I mentioned at the outset, I find the Duke student’s arguments against “Fun Home” do not particularly resonate with me. They actually strike me as somewhat sheltered, and I know in my own case that I would not feel a need to reconcile everything that I read with my personal religious views. I’m not offended by the violence, sexual content, or cartoon depictions of either in the book. And yet for my own very different and very personal subjective literary tastes, I would likely refuse to read “Fun Home” myself if I were entering Duke today.

My reason would be very different and amounts to simply finding Bechdel’s writing/comic uninteresting, ideologically tinged, and a touch pretentious. What I know of “Fun Home” also informs me that it is presented in a style that simply doesn’t appeal to me, even as it may appeal deeply to another person with very different tastes and interests. I needn’t read the book cover-to-cover either to reach this conclusion at a level that is sufficient to inform and affirm my disinterest – rather passing familiarity with Bechdel’s comics, descriptions and reviews of the book, familiarity and dislike for other works in the same genre, and a general lack of intellectual resonance with its themes all function together as signals and cues to make this determination. But it’s also a determination that I’d make of necessity, as committing to read a book is a time consuming activity and time has an opportunity cost – other books I could be reading instead, other things I could be writing about, other activities of an entirely different nature, whether related or not to an academic pursuit.

While the Duke student’s reasons for finding “Fun Home” at odds with his literary tastes are likely very different than my own, I cannot deny their inherent subjectivity. Nor is it possible to avoid the reality that a class-wide assignment of “Fun Home” possesses its own opportunity cost for that student, whatever it may be. Recognizing the reality of those preferences and the varying opportunity costs entailed in forcibly constraining them to a single required text is a far more important component of the learning process than whatever particular lesson(s) the committee that selected this book believed it was imparting on the students. And if Duke truly wants to instill its students with the ability to think for themselves and tackle challenging ideas in the process, its interests would be better served if it ceased treating them as if they were still in high school.

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