Suppose you are dining out at a fine restaurant. You look over a menu that has many excellent items you are sure you would enjoy. At the very bottom you see this: "Plate of Spaghetti Without Sauce." It's priced the same as the other entrees. Would you order the spaghetti, or something else?
We confront here a basic tenet of economics called opportunity cost. When you decide to do one thing, you necessarily forego doing others. When you order an item from the restaurant's menu, you give up the opportunity to dine on the others, at least at that time. So even though there is nothing wrong with eating plain spaghetti, why do it when you could enjoy many other dishes that would be more tasty and nutritious?
That is the way I look at the flap at UNC-Chapel Hill over the required (sort of) summer reading, Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations. In picking that book over all others, UNC-CH officialdom has done the educational equivalent of ordering up plates of spaghetti for everyone, when they could have had filet mignon, grilled salmon, or something else. It isn't that reading about the Qur'an is a bad thing (and it certainly does not trample on the First Amendment, since UNC-CH is neither establishing a religion or preventing free exercise of religion), but with so many other books that would do more to enlighten incoming students about the world around them to choose from, choosing this particular book is silly.
Approaching the Qur'an gives the students some of the verses from the Islamic holy book. (Whether they are actually "revelations" is a point that Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and all other infidels might dispute.) It also gives them some commentary on their impact in society in Muslim countries - such as that people on a hot, crowded bus all quiet down when someone puts in a tape recording of recitations from the Qur'an. It's all very poetic. Readers can pick up some words of Arabic.
There's nothing frightening in the selections. No discussion of the chilling calls for violence against non-believers, or of the extremely subordinate, chattel-like position of women under Islam. Students who read the book won't find anything to explain why followers of Islam would regard the killing of thousands of people who had never done them any harm last September 11th as a cause for rejoicing. Nor will they gain any insight into the thinking behind the suicide-bombing campaign against Israel.
Nothing of value is learned from a study of the pleasant parts of the Qur'an. The world of Islam is of interest to us now not because of its ancient writings, art, mathematics or other fine points, but because of its modern authoritarianism, intolerance, and aggression. A book exploring the contemporary world of Islam would have been a sensible choice for UNC-CH students. A book that seems to whitewash Islam is not, and in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, seems almost calculated to be provocative.
UNC-CH Chancellor James Moeser has defended the school's choice by writing, "We want to create an intellectual climate in which students can come to their own conclusions and turn information into personal insight and knowledge." But of course, UNC-CH already has such a climate. Certainly students can read and come to their own conclusions. But why not provide them with summer reading material that gives them something more substantial to think about than a sanitized sampler from the Qur'an? It's hard to see what "conclusions" anyone could draw from a merely descriptive book.
UNC-CH could have and should have done much better.