Freshman Summer Reading, Then and Now
"Chance and Necessity", "Fun Home", Books, Colleges and Universities, Duke University, Gay Rights, LBGTQ
When you get admitted to an elite university, you receive “the freshman packet,” a large envelope containing a guide to the campus, a course catalog, various brochures inviting you to join organizations or buy things… and a suggested reading list for the summer. At some point, after you arrive on campus in the Fall, there is going to be a Freshman introductory meeting at which the suggested book(s) are going to be discussed. In other words, you will be tested on the reading(s).
In my day, at Yale, the suggested book was Jacques Monod’s “Chance and Necessity“.
I was, I fear, naive as an incoming freshman. I read it as a rather turgid, Continental recounting of the Miller-Urey Experiment, involving the creation of amino acids (the building blocks of life) by passing electrical charges through a mixture of methane, ammonia, water, and hydrogen gases in a closed container. In reality, “Chance and Necessity” was an attempt to dispel my (non-existent at that point) religious faith in order to replace it with the proper sort of faith in materialism and scientism which a good member of the establishment elite ought to have.
An Amazon reviewer summarizes it, thusly:
Jacques Monod, the Nobel Prize winning biochemist, allies himself, in the title of this admirable treatise, to the atomist Democritus, who held that the whole universe is but the fruit of two qualities, chance and necessity. Interpreting the laws of natural selection along purely naturalistic lines, he succeeds in presenting a powerful case that takes into account the ethical, political and philosophical undercurrents of the synthesis in modern biology. Above all, he stresses that science must commit itself to the postulate of objectivity by casting aside delusive ideological and moral props, even though he enjoins, at the same time, that the postulate of objectivity itself is a moral injunction. He launches a bitter polemic against metaphysical and scientific vitalisms, dismissing them as obscurantist. … He refutes teleological explanations of nature as being contrary to the postulate of objectivity, drawing attention to self-constructing proteins as teleonomic agents, followed by an explanation of the role of nucleic acids, reproduction and invariance. This leads him to dismiss Judaeo-Christian religiosity, which accords man a significant role as being created in God’s image, as a nauseating and false pietism and he even goes so far as to recommend eugenic reform. Writing with great clarity and flair, and often in a forceful and idiosyncratic idiom, he puts forward a compelling case.
Plus Ã§a change, plus c’est la mÃªme chose. I was reading today that incoming freshmen at Duke also have summertime suggested readings, and that certain unenlightened members of the Duke Class of 2019 have had the temerity to resist reading this year’s choice, a graphic novel, titled “Fun Home“.
Several incoming freshmen decided not to read â€œFun Homeâ€ because its sexual images and themes conflicted with their personal and religious beliefs. Freshman Brian Grasso posted in the Class of 2019 Facebook page July 26 that he would not read the book â€œbecause of the graphic visual depictions of sexuality,â€ igniting conversation among students. The graphic novel, written by Alison Bechdel, chronicles her relationship with her father and her issues with sexual identity.
â€œI feel as if I would have to compromise my personal Christian moral beliefs to read it,â€ Grasso wrote in the post.
Many first-year students responded to the post, expressing their thoughts on Grassoâ€™s discomfort with the novel. Some defended the bookâ€™s images as having literary value and said that the book could broaden studentsâ€™ viewpoints.
â€œReading the book will allow you to open your mind to a new perspective and examine a way of life and thinking with which you are unfamiliar,â€ wrote freshman Marivi Howell-Arza.
However, several freshmen agreed with Grasso that the novelâ€™s images conflicted with their beliefs. Freshman Bianca Dâ€™Souza said that while the novel discussed important topics, she did not find the sexual interactions appropriate and could not bring herself to view the images depicting nudity.
Freshman Jeffrey Wubbenhorst based his decision not to read the book on its graphic novel format.
â€œThe nature of â€˜Fun Homeâ€™ means that content that I might have consented to read in print now violates my conscience due to its pornographic nature,â€ he wrote in an email.
Grasso said that many students privately messaged him thanking him for the post and agreeing with his viewpoint. He explained that he knew the post would be controversial but wanted to make sure students with similar Christian beliefs did not feel alone, adding that he also heard from several students with non-Christian backgrounds who chose not to read the book for moral reasons.
â€œThere is so much pressure on Duke students, and they want so badly to fit in,â€ he said. â€œBut at the end of the day, we donâ€™t have to read the book.â€
The summer reading book selection committee expected that the novel would be contentious among its readers, said senior Sherry Zhang, a member of the committee and co-chair of the First-Year Advisory Counselor Board. The debate generated by Grassoâ€™s post was â€œvery respectful and considerate,â€ Zhang said.
Publishers Weekly described “Fun Home”:
This autobiography by the author of the long-running [comic] strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, deals with her childhood with a closeted gay father, who was an English teacher and proprietor of the local funeral parlor (the former allowed him access to teen boys). Fun Home refers both to the funeral parlor, where he put makeup on the corpses and arranged the flowers, and the family’s meticulously restored gothic revival house, filled with gilt and lace, where he liked to imagine himself a 19th-century aristocrat. … Bechdel’s talent for intimacy and banter gains gravitas when used to describe a family in which a man’s secrets make his wife a tired husk and overshadow his daughter’s burgeoning womanhood and homosexuality. His court trial over his dealings with a young boy pushes aside the importance of her early teen years. Her coming out is pushed aside by his death, probably a suicide.
In 1966, those-who-know-better were trying to get rid of your religious superstitions and make you into a good secular materialist believer in progressive scientism and the rule of experts. Today, the goal is to get rid of that old-fashioned religion-based morality and to make you into a politically correct and appropriately sensitive and respectful admirer and supporter of the LBGTQ movement, if not LBGTQ yourself.