One of the things about the reaction to Allison Bechdel’s Fun Home by a small subset of incoming Duke undergraduates that is important to grasp is that I think it’s a deliberate–and possibly even coordinated–re-deployment of activism about the content of college education that’s previously come from a “left” direction, right down to the way that the students articulate how reading Fun Home would harm their identities and how they ought to have the right to choose a college education that would never compel them to experience either content or instruction that contradicts the identities that they have chosen for themselves.
There is much more embedded inside of that set of moves than just distaste for a single book or the expression of a single ideology about sexual identity, and it is a good example of why many of us worry about political tactics even when we are sympathetic to the particular concerns, feelings or aspirations of people employing those tactics. Because tactics are mobile: they’re not copyrighted or trademarked.
But it’s not just tactics that’s the issue. It’s also philosophical substance. The Christian students at Duke and left or radical students elsewhere are sometimes proposing something basically similar about themselves, and about the relationship between their sense of self and liberal arts education. They’re proposing that identity is a product of agency (whether through struggle or chosen freely) and that the content of a liberal arts education may destabilize, challenge or unsettle that choice.
I think they’re complicatedly wrong about the former assertion: not only are we not necessarily a product of our own conscious self-making, I’m not even sure that we should hold that out as an aspiration for ourselves. Some aspect of our becoming should be a mystery (and will be whether it should be). They’re not wrong about the latter: the content of a good education may in fact destabilize, challenge or unsettle what we are in ways that neither faculty nor students can anticipate. I wouldn’t even care to guarantee that in the short-term that this shifting or unsettling will have positive outcomes for individuals or communities. But I would still say that it ought to be done.
What unites this particular set of complaints against liberal arts education is a kind of resurgent functionalism, a belief that specific content creates specific outcomes. That classical literature creates Western domination, that Fun Home creates sexual desire and lesbianism. That “problematic” texts create predictable problematic outcomes, that knowledge has a relationship to power over people and power within people that can be known in advance of acquiring that knowledge.
The Duke Christian students may even be right in some sense, if in ignorance of what is actually inside of Fun Home. It is not that there is one panel of oral sex that they should fear, but the fact that lesbians (and a closeted gay man) are present as intimately knowable, familiar human beings. That is a danger if you require them to be unfamiliar and inhuman to sustain your own sense of self. But that might be equally the real fear of some students and activists on the left: that texts that they believe to be doing nothing but the work of oppression nevertheless contain multitudes, just as oppressors do. That to pursue liberal arts education is to live a life without guarantees, to love, or at least make peace with, our own uncertainty.