The objections of a handful of incoming UNC-Chapel Hill students to reading an introduction to the Qur'án as a summer assignment were bad enough. Then, the whole thing became an embarrassing piece of political theater. A right-wing religious organization sued on their behalf, gaining national attention. The House Appropriations Committee voted to block funding for the program, knowing the budget wouldn't be passed until after the semester starts, anyway. And the UNC Board of Governors couldn't muster the votes to pass a resolution endorsing academic freedom. We'll forego the obvious arguments--that going to college is about broadening horizons and being exposed to new ideas, and that for religious or political groups to object to something as important as the study of Islam is an absurd challenge to the university's reason for existence.
Instead, we'll just imagine how a student might try to justify not reading the book.
From the UNC Web site:
The Carolina Summer Reading Program is designed to introduce you to the intellectual life of Carolina. Required of all new undergraduate students (first year and transfer), it involves reading an assigned book over the summer, writing a one-page response to a particular subject, participating in a two-hour discussion, and sharing your written response with others. ... This year's reading is Approaching the Qur'án: The Early Revelations, translated and introduced by Michael Sells. Although the summer reading is required, if any students or their families are opposed to reading parts of the Qur'án because to do so is offensive to their own faith, they may choose not to read the book. These students should instead complete their one-page response on why they chose not to read the book.
My Essay by June Spence
In today's modern society, there is too much information out there trying to get in. Teachers, parents, The Media, politicians, salespeople, scientists, poets, whole panels of experts, talk-show hosts, cult leaders, sports heroes, sex predators, and the so-called "Cool People," etc., are all seeking to cram it in our brains. There's all this human history fighting for space inside our skulls; sooner or later we're going to run out of room. But the aforementioned people just keep pushing. In tenth grade Western Civ, for example, we were forced to learn about events that occurred a hundred years ago or more. It is unreasonable, not to mention impractical, to expect the modern young people of today to live in the past, when, as our student body president so wisely stated in his June 2002 commencement address, "We are the future." The past is just that: the past. It is over and done with. There is no taking it back. Can't we just move on?
The Qur'án is yet another example of the information overload crisis I illuminate in the introduction (see previous paragraph). A long and difficult book to tackle by itself, it has inspired more spin-offs than a hit TV series. The latest, Approaching the Qur'án, is just another weapon in the liberal media's well-stocked arsenal of political correctness. Locked and loaded, they are aiming their p.c. guns straight at the brains of America's youth. When if it was something about the Bible, all those same people would be freaking out.
These propaganda-pistol-packing mamas say that learning more about the Qur'án may lead to a greater understanding of the Muslim religion. They claim that greater understanding may prevent us from resorting to such dangerously ignorant shorthand as Islam = Terrorism. Critical and objective study, they insist, is the key to intelligent dialogue. What I want to know is, what's so great about all this critical thinking? "Critical" is just so negative! My mother is very critical, and that has impacted my self-esteem. Our nation needs more positive thinking!
There's an old saying that goes, "Practice what you preach." Webster defines "preach" as "to discourse on moral or religious topics." When we meet to discuss Approaching the Qur'án, we are basically being asked to "preach" about Islam. In order to be true to that old saying, we would therefore have to "practice" Islam as well, i.e., be converted. That is fooling with the Constitution. And I don't know about you, but the last time I was asked to read scriptures and talk about what they meant, it was so I could get baptized. Religion is not like shoes; I don't need a pair of them.
Although I chose not to read the book because to do so was offensive to my or my family's own faith, there are other compelling reasons for eschewing this tome. I have to reject the very concept of a Summer Reading Program. Isn't "summer reading" an oxymoron? Summer is for getting rid of all the stress of everyday living. Summer means floating on a raft, enjoying quality beverages, and just generally having "Fun in the Sun!" As a rising freshman, I'm looking at five long years of having to read stuff I didn't pick out. Shouldn't the recently graduated who have obviously worked very hard or they would never have gotten into this school in the first place have a little breather? Also, we will be in Florida until the semester starts and there is just no time. As travel is in itself educational, it could be argued that I have barely had a break at all.
In conclusion, I am glad to live in America, where a liberal arts education is the yeast in the rising dough of freedom that bakes into the fresh white loaf of democracy that we butter with our faith. Go Heels!
June Spence is a writer in Raleigh and was the Kenan Visiting Writer at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2001-2002. She has graded way too many freshman essays in her academic career.