Monday, August 19, 2002

School Board - I cannot refrain from commenting on the recent uproar surrounding UNC Chapel Hill's Summer Reading Program. (The details of UNC's Summer Reading Program can be found at the University's Summer Reading Program website.) The issue concerns a requirement that all incoming first year students read a book on the Quran for an orientation discussion. For some background on public reaction to this program, you might want to consult this article and this article from the many in North Carolina's The News & Observer. The Washington Post ran an excellent piece on the controversy about a week and a half ago. The complaint lodged by some critics of this year's selection is that requiring such a book amounts to the promotion of religion (Islam) in a state university, which these critics claim is unconstitutional. Some other critics have taken the issue even further, complaining that the requirement amounts to religious indoctrination in the faith of America's "wartime" enemies. (And here we see the use of that nasty, omnipresent slogan "America at War" to stifle academic freedom.) But students can opt out of reading the book if it offends their faith, and can instead complete an alternate writing assignment explaining why they chose not to do the reading. Advocates of the program (and this year's book selection) see this as an academic exercise of exploring and learning about differing worldviews and religious cultures, rather than an evangelical exercise in the promotion of a particular faith. Additionally, some supporters of the program have made the issue one of constitutionally protected free speech and overall academic freedom. My point of view, knowing the academic world as intimately as I do, is that this academic exercise is about as far from religious proselytizing as one can get. I am certain, especially after having read the actual assignment, that the purpose of the reading program and discussion sessions is to deal with the subject of the book as a critical thinker and to stretch the expanses of knowledge. It is not a "bible study" whose purpose is to inculcate, reaffirm, and/or strengthen faith in Islam. In the same vein, I would consider the study of the Catholic doctines on sexuality and celibacy in light of the recent scandals an equally appropriate exercise in critical thinking about a timely and relevant controversy. Such a study does not advocate religious indoctrination. Looked at in another way, refusing to discuss Islam in an objective and critical way at this moment in our country's history is not only antithetical to understanding a worldview that millions of people embrace, but is also dangerous in that it encourages ignorance about that very same worldview which some have used to harm us.

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