Anti-gay book controversy at Ohio State, Mansfield
At Ohio State, Mansfield there’s a controversial situation shaping up concerning the library. It isn’t being talked about on listservs much, probably because at first glance it might seem to involve a conflict between gay rights and intellectual freedom.
At Ohio State they’re doing the “every reader, one book” idea for incoming freshmen, the idea being to help give them a unified experience. The head of reference there, Scott Savage, is on the book selection committee. I’m a little unclear on the background to this, but according to this article in Inside Higher Ed, it went like this: The book selection committee began by considering some center-left political books for the unifying reading experience, and Savage criticized the idea, saying those choices would be polarizing. The response from committee members (at least some of them) was that this would be healthy, because it would spark debate. To paraphrase Savage, his answer was, “You want debate? I got your debate right here.” He nominated some extreme right wing books, including an anti-gay book. I don’t know whether his nominations were intended facetiously and rhetorically, just to make a point about applying an intellectual freedom argument to an “everybody reads the same book” program, of if he is a real right-winger, but they sparked a storm of protests from faculty members and fellow committee members. Eventually he was formally charged with sexual harrassment for nominating the anti-gay book (the book is The Marketing of Evil: How Radicals, Elitists, and Pseudo-Experts Sell Us Corruption Disguised as Freedom, by David Kupelian). In response to the sexual harrassment charge, a right-wing legal group is threatening to sue the university in defense of Savage, putting their own predictable spin on the case.
The way it looks to me is that if Savage’s suggestion was serious, there is a harrassment issue involved in his attempt to force students to read that book, which not only represents a political extreme but also targets groups of people with hate. Intellectual freedom arguments don’t apply to this situation, because students don’t have the option not to read the book if they don’t like it – it’s mandatory. That’s the idea behind these “every reader, one book” programs in education. The selection of books for these programs is a curriculuar decision, not a collection development decision. Different considerations apply. But that argument doesn’t only go against Savage’s suggestion. It also raises questions about how to think about selecting a book for a “unifying experience” reading program for incoming freshmen. A book about politics from a center-left perspective isn’t hate literature, but in what sense is it unifying? If it is intended to spark debate, then there is no real intention of unifying students to a single point of view, and the unification intended would have more to do with getting students thinking about the same issues, which is a valuable thing to do. However, since the book is an official selection, it does communicate a sense of doctrine for students orienting themselves to the university. I think this raises questions that aren’t easily worked through no matter what your biases. Is it entirely inappropriate or even avoidable for a university, or a department or program, to have an overall political orientation? What is the best way to balance the interest of a unified educational experience with free inquiry in education? What are the limits of community unification and what are the limits of tolerance? It may be that the right-wing extremist books are way out of line and the center-left political books are good choices, but I think there are some serious questions that the planners of the reading program would need to attend to before deciding that that is the answer.