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More Unscholarly Summer Reading Choices

UNC-CH chooses Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America

By Jon Sanders

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July 24, 2003

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill hit a public-relations goldmine last year with its Summer Reading Program controversy. The PR-savvy officials at the public institution recognized at the time that they had hit upon a good formula. Little wonder why the program's in the news again this summer.

Last year, for the benefit of those who somehow missed all the fuss, the university required all incoming freshman to read Michael Sells' Approaching the Q'uran, which addressed the problem of American ignorance of Islam by teaching students about the Koran -- using just its 35 most approachable passages. Then a Christian organization, the Family Policy Network, turned previous Christian judicial activism on its ear by arguing that "separation of church and state" meant that UNC couldn't require that book. UNC lifted the absolute requirement, the Christian group nevertheless continued its suit, and UNC was praised nationwide for fighting for academic freedom. UNC president Molly C. Broad even won a rare Alexander Meiklejohn Award for Academic Freedom from the American Association of University Professors.

In short, UNC received nationwide media coverage, was hailed as the defender of academic freedom, and fought off reactionary religious types. It's no surprise it returned to the summer-reading-controversy well this summer, nor should it be -- Chancellor James Moeser pledged as much last fall before the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., when he said the reading program's books would continue to be "provocative."

Thus this year's selection is Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. Written by bitter, elitist-snob Marxist social critic Barbara Ehrenreich, the book has proven to be a stout poker with which to agitate UNC's modest but feisty nest of campus conservatives. (The book wouldn't sit well with economists, either, nor people who understand how prices and wages work, nor folks who know a thing or two about how federal, state, and local taxes affect paychecks -- but that's beside the point.) The plot formula was already set -- UNC gets to play Ye Defender of Ye Aulde Academic Freedom again, and the conservatives are fit into the other role, that of the toothless, torch-waving mob a-feared to read something they disagree with. Meanwhile, the students' criticisms (that UNC ought to require incoming scholars something, well, scholarly, or at least seek a more balanced, i.e. scholarly, approach to any problem the program supposedly seeks to address) get shoved aside. Come summer it'll be another blockbuster.

Now with the sequel successfully launched, next year will be time for a third provocative installment. In Hollywood, "three-quels" are typically the most outlandish of a trio, turning tropes established by the previous two on their heads only to reinforce them in the end. Perhaps what UNC could do with its upcoming Schlocky III would be -- I modestly propose -- to assign incoming students an unscholarly, conservative book.

Granted, this scheme would present big risks for UNC, but it would also serve potentially to get conservatives even more over the barrel regarding the summer reading program. Would they greet the choice with cheer? That would expose a bare and easily risible political agenda on their part. Or would they pursue logical consistency and criticize the selection again as one-sided and lacking scholarship?

One risk for UNC is that their critics very well could remain consistent in their criticism, especially if they perceive the university's tack changing from ignoring their side of the issue to straw-manning it instead. But perhaps then they could be portrayed as opposing the program altogether. (Is it reading they don't like, or just discussing important social problems?)

The conservatives, meanwhile, could face having their demands seemingly met while the same socialists normally selecting texts agreeable to them get the enjoyable opportunity to whale away upon a poor conservative text. Of course, in order to do that those socialists would first have to suffer freshmen buying and perhaps even reading the conservative text. The selection alone would show that the professors really aren't averse to students being exposed to conservative thought. But how are they to do that if, for instance, they really are?

Further complicating the matter is even if the selection committee isn't averse to students being exposed to conservative thought, what if they worry that other groups on campus are? It's one thing to defend academic freedom from law-and-order types on the right, who aren't likely to invoke "civil disobedience" or otherwise make destructive spectacles of themselves when they don't get their way. It's all fuss, no muss. A newspaper ad, a press conference, even a lawsuit -- those are minor annoyances compared with the activism arsenal of outraged leftist groups, which are legion in Chapel Hill. Not for nothing are UNC officials wont to give these groups their own buildings on campus for fear they will take over theirs. (And given the respective qualities of protest music and "earth-friendly" hygiene, who can blame them?) Despite the promise to be "provocative," would UNC dare brave the fury that requiring, say, Ann Coulter's Treason would unleash?

It seems that the risks to UNC of assigning a milquetoast, rightwing book outweigh the benefits. The same new scholars UNC officials happily quote in defense of Nickel and Dimed as being able to think for themselves, well, they just might be. In which case, for sake of good PR -- er, academic freedom, that is -- bring on the upset conservatives, and pass the leftist twaddle.

 


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