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Why Duke University freshmen refuse to read graphic novel ‘Fun Home’ (+video)

Some Duke freshmen have decided to boycott a book required of all incoming students, a move that reflects a growing sentiment about the right to not be offended.

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    Students at Duke University welcome a newcomer to the Duke east campus in Durham, N.C. on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2015. Some freshmen at the campus have refused to read 'Fun Home,' a novel assigned to them over the summer, saying that the book's sexual themes and images conflict with their personal and religious beliefs.
    Bernard Thomas/The Herald-Sun/AP
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“Fun Home” may be a critically acclaimed graphic novel, but some students at Duke University don't find it very impressive at all.

A number of incoming students at the elite North Carolina institution have refused to read the book, sent to all members of the Class of 2019, because they say its sexual themes and images conflict with their moral standards and religious beliefs.

Their decision echoes similar sentiments in colleges and universities across the country as issues of free speech come into conflict with some students’ expectations “that they have a right not to read or hear ideas that differ from their worldview or make them uncomfortable,” The Christian Science Monitor's Kevin Truong reported.

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Academic observers describe it as a shift in student concerns from political correctness to “empathetic correctness.” The first is a desire not to offend; the second a desire not to be offended.

“A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense,” free speech lawyer Greg Lukianoff and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt co-wrote for The Atlantic. “This new climate is slowly being institutionalized, and is affecting what can be said in the classroom, even as a basis for discussion.”

Terms like “microaggression” – which refers to unintended discrimination – and “trigger warnings” – which alert a reader, listener, or viewer of potentially offensive content – have also grown ubiquitous in colleges, as some students struggle against material, actions, and discussions that may offend them or cause them discomfort, Mr. Lukianoff and Mr. Haidt wrote.

And despite what the incident at Duke suggests, it’s not usually a debate that divides students along lines of conservative/liberal, either: “I'm a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me,” wrote one college professor, protecting himself behind a pseudonym, in Vox in June.

Behind the shift, experts say, are myriad factors that include the mainstream media’s focus on political correctness; the ever-present nature of social media; and, above all, a university culture that increasingly treats students like consumers to be satisfied instead of pupils to be educated.

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"According to professors and higher-education experts, the trend is driven by financial realities in the American higher education system, and exacerbated by a contemporary world in which opinions are catalyzed and publicized by the intellectual echo chamber that can exist online," Mr. Truong reported. 

The recent debate at Duke began after freshman Brian Grasso, in a post on the Class of 2019 Facebook page, said he would not read “Fun Home” because of the book’s graphic visual depictions of sexuality, the Duke Chronicle reported. The critically acclaimed novel, written by Alison Bechdel, tackles issues of sexual orientation, gender identity, and death.

“I feel as if I would have to compromise my personal Christian moral beliefs to read it,” Mr. Grasso wrote. “Duke did not seem to have people like me in mind. It was like Duke didn’t know we existed, which surprises me.” Other students agreed, with some saying that the novel discussed important topics but did so a manner that they found inappropriate.

The joint student-faculty committee that chose "Fun Home" for the "Common Experience summer reading book," however, noted that not only does the book take on critical issues such as mental health, interpersonal relationships, and human rights – it also does so in a way that is vital to learning.

“The book is a quick read but not an easy one; it made me uncomfortable at times, which I think is one of the most telling reasons why it's so important for students to read," said Ibanca Anand, a student member of the committee. “It has the potential to start many arguments and conversations, which, in my opinion, is an integral component of a liberal arts education.”

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