Skipping The Summer Reading
Waaaaay back when Ronald Reagan was still President, I was offered enrollment at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Figuring that college in paradise was unlikely to suck, that was where I accepted and it became my institution of higher learning.
Shortly after graduating from high school and while handling registration for the dorms and otherwise girding myself for the upcoming realities of going to college in paradise, (albeit a pre-corrupted paradise), I got a letter from the College of Arts and Sciences: my first assignment. Although I was not yet registered for any classes, I was asked to read a book over the summer.
A specific book: a still relatively-new and headline-grabbing work of popularized science, The Blind Watchmaker, by Richard Dawkins. The College of Arts and Sciences indicated that they suggested that by reading this book, I could begin broadening my scope of intellectual thought immediately, before I ever arrived, and to lay the foundation for an intellectual experience that I would have in common with all of my fellow freshmen.
Back then, I still counted myself at least nominally a Roman Catholic, although I’d internally stopped believing in all that supernatural stuff about a wafer of bland bread turning into the flesh of Jesus Christ and Jesus’ mom having got pregnant without ever having had sex with her husband and God giving a tinker’s damn about teenagers who touched themselves or gay folks being all gay and whatnot. Consciously, I wasn’t quite ready to let go of calling myself a Catholic, notwithstanding that the underlying reality that my beliefs were already eroded beyond any shoring-up.
That was primarily because I had enjoyed the tutelage of some talented teachers and morally good men who happened to be ordained Roman Catholic priests. And the Roman Catholic Church, in my experience, was simply unthreatened by the concept of evolution in the way that were other sects of Christianity (at the time we called them “fundamentalists”). who originally believed the very concept of evolution was a threat to the faith itself, and that there were all sorts of bizarre stories and intellectual backflips offered by apologists for literal creationism.
My biology teacher, a Jesuit hailing originally from a small rural village sort of near Napoli, Italy, told me that he felt sorry for these people, because they had blinded themselves to the miracles and wonders of science God had placed right before their eyes. “God loves science! God loves it when we do science!” he proclaimed, several times a week. “Our mind is a great gift from God, and we should use it and thank God for it!” Evolution, he said, was the hand of God itself at work, a miracle and a joy to behold. He was a little bit goofy sometimes, but I admired him and his enthusiasm for his field of study.
This left me thinking that the literal creationists were deeply unserious people, unserious about their claims to not be opposed to science and unserious about the Christianity they claimed to advocate. And that was before my soon-to-be university told me to read Richard Dawkins.
But I did read it, pretty much because I was told on a piece of paper bearing the University’s letterhead that I should read it. Now, if you’ve read The Blind Watchmaker, you know that Dawkins spends the bulk of his book demonstrating why the then-contemporary arguments for “intelligent design” don’t hold up under logic and experience. He spends a rather great deal of time describing a simple computer program he wrote which he said proves that from very simple forms of things, very complex forms of things can emerge. Even at the time, I doubted that it was actually very useful for the purpose of proving the truth of evolution.
His other rebuttals to creationist arguments were much better: creationists at the time asked, rhetorically, “What good is half an eye?” and the answer is “It’s better than no eye at all,” especially when you realize that “half an eye” in this context means an organ that distinguishes light from dark, so the creature can tell when it’s day or night (for instance).
The argument against the supposedly unanswered question “where could life have come from originally without God?” was at least an intriguing theory: crystals replicate themselves in both inorganic and organic media; perhaps clay crystals replicated in response to environmental conditions of heat and cold, dryness and coolness, and those self-replicating crystal formations grew more complex over time. I read the disclaimer Dawkins put on the proposal: he wasn’t saying that’s what actually happened, he was saying that explanations were out there and it would be wrong to say that science offered no explanation whatsoever. And usefully, this idea has life coming from clay, just like in Genesis.
Given my background of exposure to smart, evolution-embracing priests as my teachers, my initial reaction was, “Why did this Dawkins guy feel the need to even bother to write this book?” The book was long and after a while it seemed very repetitive and eventually it become downright dry. But the author’s passion for the subject was palpable; I could tell that Dawkins felt a great urgency to write it.
This was before there was much of a thing called the “internet,” so I had to do things like ask other people what was going on with that, and I discovered that there was a seemingly huge contingent of people who out-and-out refused to believe in evolution, who thought that it was a lie told by Satan and repeated by both Satan’s hookwinked victims and his willing minions, who thundered that scientists were liars and frauds and that my immortal soul depended on disbelieving what those scientists were teaching me. I had to go to places like the library to find books and magazine articles that they had written, and, horrified at the fruits of this research, I did exactly that. It confirmed the impression I had been given in school by the Jesuit who had taught my high school biology class: these were unserious people not to be taken seriously. To my astonishment, they took themselves very seriously indeed and there seemed to be quite a lot of them.
The summer assignment was, in some ways, the most effective and most important lesson I ever got at college.
Reading The Blind Watchmaker got me thinking critically, even about a book advocating a position that I pretty much agreed with on an intuitive level. I gauged the persuasiveness and strength of Dawkins’ arguments and judged for myself that some were better than others. I saw how particular arguments were good for one logical purpose but not necessarily another, and thus got an idea of how arguments are used. I found the importance of drilling through to understand why an author makes arguments at all. I did my own independent and unguided research to understand a subject deeper and to put that subject in context. I engaged the ideas in the text rather than the charisma of the author. Also, I acquired additional knowledge about biology, which was the tangible effect that I felt — the other stuff, I wasn’t really aware of working, but in retrospect, something about that book and that experience woke me up inside.
I started thinking at a collegiate level. This, of course, was exactly what the people who assigned the book wanted.
When I actually got to school, like many other incoming freshmen, my thoughts immediately turned to the other freshmen moving in to the dorms around me. Specifically, to the young women moving in to the dorms around me, and how incredibly cute they were. Even better, they seemed to be checking out the young men around them, so naturally this was an exciting time. There was about a week of orientation before classes started, enough time to learn our way around campus and the nearby community, shore up holes in our class schedules, buy books and other last-minute supplies.
So really, it was a whole week of nothing to do but make friends and solicit mutual romantic interest from amongst the abundant, abundant supply of potential mates my own age around me at every corner, all of us endowed with ample idle time, new and exciting places to explore, and perfect, warm weather to do it in. And some of the new friends readily on hand had ready access to alcohol, plenty of money to buy it with, and hospitable willingness to share around.
The only real obstacle to overcome was pretty clearly going to be loyalty to high school boyfriends back home and, well, they weren’t exactly there, were they? Now, you’d think that in an environment like that, you’d have to pretty much try, try hard, to not get laid. Yet somehow, eighteen-year-old me succeeded at this challenging task.
I began the project by making a male friend, and he and I then struck up a flirtation with a couple of young ladies who had been assigned to be roommates. For the life of me I can’t remember any of their names today. Let’s call my male friend “Quincy,” and the young ladies who had caught our eyes “Rhonda” and “Sally.” Rhonda was cute, and Quincy thought Sally was at least cute enough, so he was happy to fly wingman.
After a decent enough start to things, we shared a meal together at the commons. Conversation turned to the summer reading list. And as between Quincy, Rhonda, Sally, and myself, those among our foursome who had actually read The Blind Watchmaker consisted of “myself.”
Quincy said that he had simply blown it off. “The book wasn’t assigned for any class, so I didn’t read it,” he said.
Rhonda said that she hadn’t understood that it was something we were supposed to read at all. She didn’t know what the letter was all about in the first place.
Sally chimed in at this point: “I got the letter, too, but I wasn’t going to read that book at all. My pastor back home said it’s about how evolution is supposed to be true.”
“Oh,” Rhonda joined in. “Then even if I’d started reading it I’d have stopped.”
“I don’t understand,” I said. “Why wouldn’t you read a book about evolution?”
“Because I’m a Christian,” Rhonda said.
“Yeah, exactly,” said Sally. “Are you guys something else?” (This was asked in a tone of inquiry, not one of passing judgment.)
“I’m Catholic,” Quincy said, and I knew I was going to have nothing better to say than that.
“So you, like, actually read the book?” Rhonda asked me. Without waiting for an answer, she went on, “Seems like a waste of time to me, you either believe in evolution or you don’t.”
“And you… don’t.”
“Nope.” With that, Rhonda lost interest both in the discussion and in me.
If I could send messages back in time to myself, I’d send a message back to the me of that point in time that would say to my younger self, “Younger Self, that uneasy feeling you just had about this girl is what it feels like when you come across a ‘dealbreaker.’ You have no shot. You will not get a shot in the future. In fact, you do not want a shot. You need to move on to find some other girl. From this point forward, you’re wasting your time.”
The actual eighteen year old me lacked such guidance from his future self. Her apparent lack of intellectual curiousity, and ready willingness to throw her religion up as a shield against further romantic advances, should have signalled to me “not girlfriend material.” But she was cute, and this was all eighteen year old me could see. So I continued the chase until I had become pathetic and thus celibate.
Somehow, I missed the fact that this exchange had identified me as being from a different tribe, walking a different path, and possessed of a strange and untrustworthy way of thinking.
Well, I’m not that luckless, clueless college freshman anymore. I’m a practicing lawyer who has accumulated a hopefully decent amount of knowledge about employment litigation. That knowledge molds my thought to a degree I do not always fully appreciate, at least at a conscious level.
For instance, it may interest you to know that the most common kind of direct anti-discrimination lawsuit filed in the state of California, by a big margin, are based upon disability discrimination. (See pages 13-18 of the California DFEH’s recent report to the state legislature.) The only other classification of claims that comes close to the numerical dominance of disability discrimination claims are retaliation claims, which are generally derivative of other kinds of allegedly wrongful employment practices.
The really, really brief thumbnail of such a case goes like this: employer hires employee to do job “X.” Job X requires doing things that include physical activity “Y.” Employee has a medical condition which restricts her ability to do physical activity Y. Employer and employee have a joint duty to talk about how employee’s impacted ability to do physical activity Y interferes with performing job X. This is called the “interactive process” and can be done informally. They are supposed to jointly arrive at a “reasonable accommodation,” “Z,” such that employee may actually do job X notwithstanding the restriction on her ability to do physical activity Y, if reasonable accommodation Z is permitted.
What’s a “reasonable accommodation”? The law doesn’t attempt to offer a bright line answer. Like pornography, you know it when you see it (and like pornography, sometimes people disagree on whether that’s what it really is). We do know that a “reasonable accommodation” will let the employee accomplish the essential functions of the job. If it’s uncomfortable for a file clerk to rest her knee on a hard surface while she kneels, then maybe a pillow for her knee while she files in a low cabinet– that’s pretty likely to be reasonable. But passing off filing functions to another employee? That’s not reasonable in most circumstances: filing is an essential function of the job, and the court isn’t going to let someone asking for an accommodation to do the job re-write the job description to suit their own fancy.
Lawsuits often revolve around the plaintiff contending that a “reasonable accommodation” was available, and the employer responding that no, what the plaintiff proposes would have put the employer to an “undue hardship.” What’s an undue hardship? The EEOC describes it in general terms as “an ‘action requiring significant difficulty or expense’ when considered in light of a number of factors [including] the nature and cost of the accommodation in relation to the size, resources, nature, and structure of the employer’s operation.” So it sort of eludes an easy, precise description and needs to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. And, the reasonable accommodation that the employer is legally required to adopt need not necessarily be the thing that the employee suggests.
We also live in a world of a relatively recently supercharged law called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It’s been adopted at the Federal level and every state has its version of it. It basically relieves people who claim a particular religious belief from doing things asked of them by others, which they subjectively determine to be contrary to the practices that spring from those beliefs. It puts the burden on others, usually governmental entities, to prove that there is simply no other way to do whatever it is that is going on other than the challenged practice, and that they’ve done everything they can do to minimize the impact this activity has on the religious freedom of the person who says their religion is being restricted.
Religious discrimination in private employment law winds up looking like a hybrid between the better-known mechanisms of the RFRA and the ADA: the employee voices a religious objection to something going on at work, and the employer then must find a reasonable accommodation for it. There is functionally no examination of the sincerity of the employee’s claim, and the definition of what constitutes a religious belief is pretty spongy. Like pornography, or what’s reasonable versus unreasonable in a disability situation, or violence too graphic for young children, you just kind of recognize it when you see it.
The real difference between the “undue burden” standards in the ADA and a Title VII religious discrimination case is that the employer’s threshold in a Title VII religious case is significantly lower: “undue burden” means it imposes a “greater than de minimis“ cost to the employer. That’s a whole lot easier for the employer to prove than the equivalent meaning of that phrase in an ADA case. And what that means is that the intricacies of how you are supposed to do your job are more important than what God tells you to do. (In practice, what you can do with this law is get your employer to schedule your regular day off work so you can have a religiously-mandated day of worship and rest.)
But that standard doesn’t come from a statute, it comes from an EEOC interpretive guideline, which could change with the political winds upon a shift in personnel with political control of the EEOC. Note that this does not necessarily refer to a Republican becoming President; a Democrat who appoints EEOC commissioners with different views on this than the existing ones can cause the organization to issue new guidelines. Or, Congress could step in. Or, the courts could decide that RFRA means Congress already has done this, that it’s instructed the government to afford maximum deference to individual religious belief. All the statute says is making an adverse employment action based upon an employee’s religion is an unlawful practice, subject to tort liability.
Hobby Lobby hasn’t directly invaded employee-versus-employer lawsuits yet. But I’m kind of waiting for it to happen with more than a little bit of dread, because it’s going to make advising my employer clients a lot harder and it’s going to make picking out good plaintiff cases from bad ones not only harder, but also more picayune in sifting through the endless, tedious trivia of people telling inarticulate stories griping about their bosses who, while maybe they acted like assholes, haven’t actually broken the law.
One of my “greatest hits,” meaning pieces I’ve written here that have accumulated a large number of lifetime views, was an essay I titled “Thinking in Shorthand,” reacting to a politically conservative journalism major at Butler University named Ryan Lovelace, who announced in a remarkably well-publicized fit of Internet pique that because he was asked to use “liberal” terms in a class, and to confront “liberal” issues in a graded assignment, he was being pre-judged and graded based on his political beliefs rather than his intellectual mastery of the assigned subject.
Therefore, Lovelace loudly announced that he would seek to avoid liberal arts classes in the future and leveled an electronic j’accuse of the cultural offense of political correctness at the institution of higher learning where he was enrolled. I took him to task:
What’s going on here is Mr. Lovelace opting out of the community of thought that characterizes a university because it’s uncomfortable for him to understand ideas and perspectives other than his own sufficiently well that he can articulate them fairly. Assuming a posture of political victimhood here is unseemly at best and contradictory to the idea of higher education at worst. Mr. Lovelace ought to take the class, learn how to separate fact from opinion, and form his own opinions based on the facts he’s learned.
For what it’s worth, Lovelace has landed himself a good position at National Review Online and has produced an impressive volume of work there since December of 2014. I do not know if he graduated from Butler, some other university, or at all. He appears to be on a trajectory of success as a partisan journalist, an endeavor for which the principal demands are epistolary ability, high but not necessarily absolute adherence to the prevailing ideological orthodoxy of one’s publisher, and a willingness to work for really crappy pay until at least one’s early thirties. A degree helps, but is not essential, for this career path.
As was clear from his piece written as a student, epistolary ability is far from a problem for Lovelace. He produced powerful, effective prose, and practice will have only improved it since then. Nor is ideological orthodoxy an apparent problem: accusing liberal college instructors of indoctrinating when they should have been educating is as classic a page in the conservative P.R. playbook as the ol’ Fumblerooski is in college ball. As for the pay, that’s no one’s business but Lovelace’s.
So while there’s certainly nothing objectively wrong with having a conservative point of view as opposed to a liberal one, and a claim that one’s grades in an academic setting are really a test of one’s political orthodoxy would be a valid one if it were true, it really looked to me like what was going on was a refusal by Mr. Lovelace to grapple with “liberal” ideas simply because they had been so labelled, and thus absenting himself from the learning experience that a university is supposed to provide its students.
Although I can’t get past the sneaky suspicion that the public complaint was really his job application for NRO, I’ll afford him the benefit of the doubt, that he’s grown intellectually to the point that he can at least understand and address ideas with which he disagrees, ideas that make him uncomfortable, by now. What the earlier piece demonstrated, though, was an intentional withdrawal from intellectual content that had been pre-judged to be at odds with the student’s political preferences.
So I thought about the potential for intrusion of the RFRA into other areas of the law, and I thought of Mr. Lovelace’s public boycott of “liberal” classes, and I also thought about the very cute Rhonda’s refusal to engage with Richard Dawkins’ flawed but influential book, when I read about members of the incoming freshman class at Duke University refusing to read Fun Home over the summer because it contains explicit textual and graphic depictions of sexual encounters.
Fun Home turns out to be the graphic novelization of Alison Bechdel’s memoir of life as a teenager in rural western Pennsylvania. Bechdel chronicles her coming of age, her coming to realize that she is gay, and her coming to terms with her father’s closeted gayness and his repeated sexual contact with an underage boy. Apparently there is a depiction of when the pubescent Bechdel discovered masturbation, and later, a depiction of a woman giving another woman oral sex (descriptions do not indicate whether this is Bechdel losing her virginity; whether that is the case or not is unimportant for this essay). Apparently the father suicides. I’ve not read it. I’m told it’s really a powerful, frequently deeply saddening, story. I probably wouldn’t have read it myself, but for this media bubble — now, I may very well seek it out.
This isn’t the late eighties anymore. Unlike when I had to seek out a spot on the campus newspaper to get an audience for my writing, the students can speak for themselves and articulate their reasons, and I think pretty proficiently. More proficiently than the girls I was interested in that first week did, although admittedly, I’d put them on the spot. These days, there’s a lot more written communication anyway — blogs, tweets, texts, facebook posts.
So I decided to go straight to the source and see what one of these students had to say about the situation. Didn’t take long to find the piece: One student at Duke who’s refusing to read Fun Home, Brian Grasso, describes it this way:
After researching the book’s content and reading a portion of it, I chose to opt out of the assignment. My choice had nothing to do with the ideas presented. I’m not opposed to reading memoirs written by LGBTQ individuals or stories containing suicide. I’m not even opposed to reading Freud, Marx or Darwin. I know that I’ll have to grapple with ideas I don’t agree with, even ideas that I find immoral. … If the book explored the same themes without sexual images or erotic language, I would have read it. But viewing pictures of sexual acts, regardless of the genders of the people involved, conflict with the inherent sacredness of sex. My beliefs extend to pop culture and even Renaissance art depicting sex.
I’m not quite sure that what Mr. Grasso is asking for is possible. If the subject of the work of art in question is sexual in nature, that means that there’s going to be some treatment of sex in some way. And I’m not sure what he means by “Renaissance art depicting sex.” Huh?
[Is this where I put in a “trigger warning” that a linked image of a Renaissance painting might be considered “pornographic” by some people? People like, say, Mark Twain?]
Does Grasso mean Titian’s Venus of Urbino? I wish, for his benefit, that one day Grasso has the opportunity to visit Florence and there among other delights go to the Uffizi. But if he is so fortunate, will he ask for a warning about which gallery the Titian is hanging in so he can skip it?
What will he do should he visit Pompeii and its famous frescoes that really were intended as pornography?
Go back on up to the blockquoted passage I culled out from Grasso’s article. Grasso writes:
My choice had nothing to do with the ideas presented. I’m not opposed to reading memoirs written by LGBTQ individuals or stories containing suicide. I’m not even opposed to reading Freud, Marx or Darwin. I know that I’ll have to grapple with ideas I don’t agree with, even ideas that I find immoral.
He’s “not even opposed to reading Freud, Marx, or Darwin.” That concession speaks volumes — it means that a refusal to read those authors,the bedrock thinkers and intellectual giants in the disciplines of psychology, modern politics, economics, and bio-science, is presumptively on the table if they are somehow found wanting in the moral purity department. But, he’s willing to read them! That’s proof positive of his open-mindedness! Now, he’s reserving the right to continue to disagree with Freud, Marx, and Darwin and to find their writings immoral — but he’s willing to read them. Because they don’t come with illustrations of a girl touching her own cha-cha. Well, not in most editions, but you might want to contact the editor if you’re picking up Freud.
Now, by all means, one can read and then profoundly criticize Freud, Marx, and Darwin. But if you’re going to study things like psychology, politics, economics, and/or biology, it’s not just a question of “being willing” to read these authors. It’s pretty much mandatory. You’re going to be continually grappling with the ideas they propounded because that’s what those fields of study are. Even now, a generation later, I deal with issues framed in a Marxist lens every day of my professional life: will we enforce a minimum wage, to what extent will we permit workers to unionize, must employers provide medical insurance to their employees? Answer yes or no as you think best, but as long as you’re using the law to distribute things between capital and labor, you’re playing Karl Marx’s game. It behooves you to understand that.
If you’re going to seek intellectual mastery of a subject, you can’t study only a Bowdlerized version of it because the real thing sometimes makes people feel bad. You can’t teach criminal law without teaching rape, because rape is a crime that must be prosecuted. This doesn’t mean you have to actually assign gay porn to Christians in a basic English class, or disregard the fact that some students may themselves be survivors of sexual assaults when discussing sexual assaults. But it also means you have to deal with the reality of the subject to be taught. Doing otherwise does your students a disservice and it does the people who will come to rely on that student’s knowledge when she applies it in a professional setting an even greater disservice.
So you can’t teach art history without dealing with some nudes. Titian’s Venus of Urbino is a very prominent, very famous, and very culturally important specimen of a portrait of a nude. I’m no art historian, but even I know that this painting is artistically important precisely because it is so frankly erotic. Elements of eroticism pervade art throughout human history: that’s because sex is something that people do. Like war, or eating, or sleeping. So it’s something people make art about, or at least make art that reflects this basic reality of life.
I take Grasso at his word when he says, later in the piece, that he welcomes encountering and learning about other points of view, and his writing impresses me with the sincerity of his claim of interest in understanding them on their own terms, seemingly unlike some other people I’ve mentioned above. He writes of making an online friend well outside the orbit of a stereotypical clean-cut suburban Christian kid as a result of his public refusal to read Fun Home:
Over the past couple of days, I have received many encouraging messages from a new friend, who considers herself bisexual and a Buddhist. She and I became friends after she saw my Facebook post. Instead of criticizing me, she asked me to explain my beliefs. I, in turn, asked her to explain the Buddhist perspective on sexuality. This is how diversity is supposed to work. We each shared our perspective, and walked away from the conversation with a deeper understanding and compassion for each other. That is what college is really about.
That’s good, and it gives me more optimism for Mr. Grasso than I had for Mr. Lovelace because this demonstrates an open-minded and inclusive attitude. That will serve Mr. Grasso well in college and in life. But it still seems to fall short of what I would have him aspire to. Learning to understand and live alongside people different than yourself is indeed part of what college is really about. I strongly suspect that with his attitude, Mr. Grasso would do this anyway.
But tolerance and experimentation of other ideas and ways of life isn’t the totality of what college is all about. It’s a part of it, to be sure, but there’s more. Indeed, this ignores a basic building block of the idea of what college is for: the accumulation of a generally-accepted body of authoritative knowledge in a given field of intellectual specialization. In other words, learning a canon.
There’s been lots of talk about whether we should have a canon or not. I’m pro-canon. Subject matter experts have worked out, over the years, in every academic discipline, a constellation of works that convey the core of what a subject of study is about. I’m generally in favor of expanding the canon so it isn’t made up of only perspective of dead rich white dudes. That doesn’t mean expurgating the writings of those dead rich wide dudes — some of them had very important things to say, accomplished critical advances in knowledge, and these are things that we ought to study. We add to the canon to our intellectual enrichment; we delete from it at our intellectual peril.
Now, I suspect a principal objection is going to be, “Just because Grasso chooses to use the resource of college differently than you did, Burt, that doesn’t mean Grasso is doing it wrong.” I don’t think so. After all, still another thing that college is supposed to do is get people to think critically. Eliminating uncomfortable subject matter from one’s academic curriculum strikes me as an exceeding poor way to advance towards that goal. Indeed, it seems counter-productive: how is Grasso supposed to think critically about either art dealing with erotic themes, or cultural and moral attitudes about erotic subjects, if he intentionally skips all those classes, and worse, if the school does not impose some sort of academic penalty for doing so as a means of ensuring that the canon of a subject is indeed being learned?
I think a better objection to my specific gripe here is the most finely-honed one: “You don’t need to read Fun Home to gain an understanding of LGBTQ struggles, or to acquire the building-block critical thinking skills that, for instance, you describe partially acquiring by reading The Blind Watchmaker. Why not have Grasso and his colleagues read the same book as you?” (Never mind that the book is now thirty years old and part of the selection process for a book like this be that it is current.)
Even if Fun Home is a monumentally marvelous piece of storytelling (again, I’ve not read it myself), it’s obvious that a single book is far from the only book that can be used for the purposes of pre-matriculation college-level mind-sharpening and vision-expanding. Lots of books, probably even lots of recently-published books, can serve that role. Bright young minds will latch onto whatever they’re given and become brighter and sharper and better, if the young person is genuinely intellectually curious.
So I’m not panicking. There’s every reason to be confident in Mr. Grasso. But there’s also some anxiety, because this seems to be something of a milepost and I’m not sure how far we are along the course towards a destination I’d just as soon never get to.
The law has shifted in recent years. This affects us beyond the sphere of litigation, because the law and culture have reciprocal molding effects on one anothers’ development.
Congress and the Courts are telling individuals that their religious beliefs make them special and let them exempt themselves from things that they don’t like for religious reasons.
Grasso’s reasons for skipping the assigned reading are that this particular book contains content to which he has an objection grounded solely in his interpretation of his holy book. So Grasso and his colleagues’ boycott of the summer reading suggestion from their private university is a sign that this shift in the law has percolated out into the culture generally.
We may expect this trend to continue in the future.
People can be expected to continue absent themselves from cultural things that they don’t like, citing religious belief. Which is a purely subjective and internal phenomenon. Exposure to new, unfamiliar, and sometimes uncomfortable ideas, however, is at the very heart of what the higher educational experience is about. Permitting people to pick and choose ways to exempt themselves from such a thing dilutes the richness of the collegiate experience and its mind-enhancing power.
The next generation of college students will feel the feedback of that intellectual diminishment, because today’s college students are tomorrow’s thought leaders. And they’re being taught, by the law, that their subjective, internal religious beliefs make them special and exempt them from things they find religiously distasteful or which make them feel bad.
They find in the culture of the world of RFRA that there is license and succor for custom-Bowdlerizing the canon.Keep some perspective. I’m not saying the world is ending, that the vitality of the academy is a sand castle facing high tide, or that we’re turning into some sort of informal cultural theocracy, just because some Christian kids going to a private college skipped a suggested summer reading assignment. That sort of destination is a still long sail away from a society that is still fundamentally liberal. So just because the winds go somewhat in that direction right now does not mean we’re far enough out of the harbor to be worried about the safety of our craft. It’s just that one of the things a sailor tries to keep in mind at all times is the direction and strength of the wind. That way, the sailor can do things along the way to take the vessel where the sailor wants to go, instead of where the wind takes it on its own. Iconoclasm is very much alive and well in today’s world, after all.
How long until the cultural feedback loop this sets in motion results in shifting the religious accommodation standard in an employment case from the prevailing “more-than-de-minimis” standard to to more demanding “significant expense” standard? And from there to the even more demanding RFRA “narrowly-tailored” standard? We’re certainly not there yet, but isn’t that the direction this is going? And what does a culture that goes along with that look like? My best guess is that culture looks heavily religiously Balkanized at best, and more than a little bit like the Republic of Gilead at worst. That’s not a mental image that I enjoy contemplating; it’s not a shore I want the ship of my society to wash up on. The whole point of cautionary tales, whether fictional or real, is to find ways to not follow their examples.
What you do is important. But why you do it is important, too. I’d frankly rather have seen the incoming freshmen skip the reading assignment because they were more interested in flirting with one another than this.
Burt Likko is the pseudonym of an attorney in Southern California and the managing editor of Ordinary Times. His interests include Constitutional law with a special interest in law relating to the concept of separation of church and state, cooking, good wine, and bad science fiction movies. Follow his sporadic Tweets at @burtlikko, and his Flipboard at Burt Likko.