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A quiet time for summer reading at Carolina

By D. G. Martin
Posted Monday, August 23, 2004

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I missed the fun that came with the controversy.

This year's UNC-Chapel Hill Summer Reading Program escaped the public attention that came during the last two years.

Who am I? Where do I fit in? While West Point offers you an answer, Carolina says, 'answer that for yourself.'

Two years ago, with its selection of "Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations" by Michael Sells, the university had to deal with criticism from politicians and religious leaders who said it was improper for a public university to be teaching (or promoting) a particular religion-in this case Islam. One group even filed a lawsuit to stop the on-campus discussions of that book.

The publicity about the controversy and the lawsuit took the Summer Reading Program to a higher level of importance. It even got the attention of most of the student participants, who realized they were a part of something that was making front-page news.

Last year's choice, "Nickled and Dimed: Or (Not) Getting By in America" by Barbara Ehrenreich, also got some negative attention. Many of the complaints were based on the author's political views-alleged to be far left. Some critics bashed the university for attempting to "indoctrinate" its new students with the views of the author.

But again the public attention-even negative criticism-enhanced the status of the program. For the past two years the new students at Carolina knew that they were important newsmakers.

And, thanks to the Carolina Summer Reading Program, people throughout the state found themselves in serious discussions about Islam and about the challenges of the working poor.

By picking controversial books that provoked widespread discussion, the university extended its campus to include the entire state.

I enjoyed the experience.

But I was not on the firing line with the university leaders who had to justify the program to unfriendly critics and had to defend the lawsuit. This year those folks were ready for a break.

So the selection of the "non-controversial" book about student life at West Point, "Absolutely American" by David Lipsky, gave the campus a reprieve from unfriendly criticism and scrutiny.

But, around the campus there are some "uplifted noses" about the book and its selection. "Just a cop-out," some people have told me, explaining that the university just wanted to get a book nobody would get upset about.

Even though "Absolutely American" was a national best seller, I have heard people say that it is not "good enough for Carolina students."

Maybe. But I thought the book's four-year-long look at the experience of West Point students and recent graduates raised a host of important questions that are relevant to the campus community at Carolina and to all Americans.

What kind of education and training best prepares young people to be army officers-lieutenants and generals?

How much harassment and discipline? How much liberal arts? How much group loyalty? How much individual thinking and responsibility? Is it possible to train men and women to follow orders and give unquestioned loyalty to their units-and still help them develop the critical thinking skills that are the goal of a university education?

But what do these questions about a West Point experience have to do with new Carolina students?

History professor Richard Kohn dealt with that question when he spoke to more than 3000 new Carolina students on Sunday evening.

"Both institutions pose the same question for students to answer: Who am I? Where do I fit in? While West Point offers you an answer, Carolina says, 'answer that for yourself.' We require of you nothing so different from what West Point asks its cadets, but without the artificial physical and mental stress designed to teach you to endure battle and lead other people in that awful, tragic environment. Learn; develop your skills, intellectual and personal; broaden your perspective, your experience; test your comfort zones. The message is exactly the same as that at West Point, or at any other institution of higher education. It is to grow, to mature, to explore who you are and what you are capable of, to use your talents of every kind, above all to develop your mind not just by learning something specific, but learning to learn-to perceive, to adapt, to excel-and finally above all else to make that significant transition into defining who and what you are, and where you might wish to go.

"The big difference-really the only difference-is that Carolina insists that you learn this for yourself-and we give you the option of not learning it, if that is your choice."

So, while I missed the controversy about the summer reading program, maybe the new Carolina students gained more this time by reading, thinking, and talking about the purpose of their university experience.

And, after all, the Summer Reading Program is for them, not for me.

************************************

D.G. Martin is the author of "Interstate Eateries" a handbook of home
cooking places near North Carolina's interstate highways-available through
Our State Magazine (800-948-1409 or www.ourstate.com). He is the host of
UNC-TV's North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs on Sundays at 5:00 p.m. This
week's (August 29 ) guest is Bart Ehrman, author of Lost
Christianities.

Upcoming programs
September 5: Sheila Kay Adams, My Old True Love

September 12: Bill Thompson, Sweet Tea, Fried Chicken & Lazy Dogs

September 19: Orrin Pilkey, How to Read a North Carolina Beach

September 26: Orin Starn, Ishi's Brain

October 3: Karen Barker, Sweet Stuff

October 10: Dr. Gerald Bell, The Carolina Way

October 17: BJ Mountford, Bloodlines of Shackleford Banks

October 24: John Shelton Reed, Minding the South

October 31: Steven Sherrill, Visits from the Drowned Girl

November 7: Carl Ernst, Following Muhammad

November 14: John May, Poe & Fanny

November 21: Walter Turner, Paving Tobacco Road

 
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