Saturday, September 20, 2003

Miami U. reading program gets students to think critically

By William J. Gracie
Guest columnist

Near the close of Peter Bronson's Sept. 14 column on Miami University's Summer Reading Program and Barbara Ehrenreich's University Convocation speech [A left thumb in the eye for Miami U.], Bronson gets to the heart of the matter: the Reading Program and Convocation encourage our students to think.

For 22 consecutive years Miami has welcomed its incoming and returning students by asking them to read a common text, to exercise their critical intelligence on the subject of that text, and to listen with respect and discernment to the author's Convocation address. The texts change each year, but what each of them offers our undergraduates as well as the faculty, staff, and upper-division students who lead approximately 130 separate discussions about that text, is a provocative subject - and a subject on which there is no unanimous agreement. In fact, how could there be unanimous agreement when the texts we have chosen include discussions of the death penalty (Dead Man Walking), race relations in contemporary America (Race Matters), World War II (The Good War), the decaying core of America's major cities (Our America: Life and Death on the South Side of Chicago), Hispanic-Caucasian relations in mid-20th century California (Hunger of Memory), the HIV/AIDS pandemic (My Own Country), and the war in Vietnam (The Things They Carried).

If a characteristic of the university is its openness to free and informed discussion of complex issues, it is imperative that the university refrain from endorsing a particular point of view or perspective on those issues. Our study guides remind students that informed and reasonable readers can look at the same data or argument and come to completely opposite conclusions, and they also suggest that the text is so varied in its contents and in its views that one-sentence judgments or hasty generalizations are inappropriate responses in university-level discussion and debate.

It is unfortunate, if not surprising, that reactions to Barbara Ehrenreich and her book, Nickel and Dimmed, have been characterized of late by generalizations and one-sentence judgments. When the reading program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was criticized last year for its choice of a book on the Koran, its reading program was described by some as "indoctrination." The same word appeared in a leaflet distributed by Miami's College Republicans as approximately 4,000 people gathered in Oxford on Aug. 25 to hear Ehrenreich's address; the same word was quoted in Bronson's column.

By questioning the motives of faculty and students who chose the book and invited its author to speak, our critics not only discourage debate but deny themselves the opportunity of responding to a book which examines many subjects, not just one or two.

Ehrenreich's book describes lives of the working poor in contemporary America, but if critics dismiss the book they foreclose reading Ehrenreich on a host of other subjects. In Nickel and Dimmed, Ehrenreich discusses, for example, the power of corporations in America. She obviously supports the creation of labor unions, but in a move that may surprise her opponents, she qualifies that support. Perhaps most surprisingly, she alludes to the Sermon on the Mount four times and the Parable of the Vineyard once. A book that disturbs on many levels will challenge our students - all of us, in fact. The challenge will be lost, however, if we label open and informed debate on a complex set of issues as political "indoctrination."

Whether one agrees with Ehrenreich on one issue or on many is not, finally, very important. What remains important is the university's willingness to encourage critical thinking on difficult subjects and to bring to campus a variety of men and women who represent the variety of views and perspectives of a vibrant and working democracy. To me, she speaks eloquently of a class of working Americans few of us - at least very often - think very much about. The way those fellow Americans work and live in the midst of great prosperity is a subject that should transcend partisan thinking.


William J. Gracie Jr., is professor of English and dean of the School of Interdisciplinary Studies. He was director of the Summer Reading Program from 1989-92 and 1995-2003.

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