Another Controversy

Well, there's another book controversy at UNC so, without looking at my calendar, I know it must be mid July. I'm exaggerating, of course, but it does look like we have here the potential for the establishment of a new UNC annual tradition.

Now that I am retired, I am able to do some things I always wanted to do when was employed. Like gathering facts when a controversial topic comes up. Most people lack the time for such endeavors when they (we) are employed full time and I must say, that looking back on my days of employment, I have to wonder if I really had much of an idea on what was going on other than with my job or family.

Let's take a look at the book controversy.

It originally began as a pet project of former Chancellor Hooker as a part of his effort to "improve the intellectual climate" at UNC. Nothing much was heard about the program until last year when the book on the Koran was approved. No need to go into all the details but suffice to say, it was not UNC's finest hour. Or at least that's the way a lot of people saw it but by no means did everyone condemn the action of the university in requiring the controversial book to be read. But wait a minute, as the controversy was played out before the world, we found that the book wasn't required after all even though UNC continued to use the word "required" when referring to the reading program. We learned that only about 60% of the incoming freshmen and transfers had read the "required" reading the previous year and nothing was done to those who did not read the assignment or attend the discussion groups.

I bought the book on the Koran and I tried to read it but quite frankly, I finally put it down because I couldn't understand it and I bet I wasn't the only one. Phrases like "God is Great" don't have a lot of meaning for me because, as I see it, there is no need to state the obvious. I also had trouble with the audio part of the book and I never did understand why this was such an important part of the reading even though I had several Muslim friends try and explain it to me. I finally gave one of them the CD that came with the book and he acted like he appreciated it.

I thought, at the time, that the principal reason for the controversy was that it appeared that UNC was requiring a reading that endorsed a particular religion. Supporters of the program (see e-mail from Chancellor Moeser later in this article) say the University is not endorsing the position taken by the authors of the books selected, but I got news for them. That's not the way it's being viewed by a awful lot of people.

I wrote Chancellor Moeser several weeks ago and suggested that two books be assigned each year which would give differing views on the subjects involved. knowing full well that this would pose additional problems. I also told him that if the controversy continues each year that I would have to question the value of the program.

I'm not as concerned about the most recent assignment as I was the one on the Koran. Yes, I have read it and I actually understand and can relate to much of what is contained in the book, "Nickel and Dimed....On (Not) Getting By In America."

I won't review the book here for considerations involving space.

I thought you might like to see the e-mail Chancellor Moeser sent me in response to my initial communication with him. It was a standard response sent to probably hundreds of people but I do appreciate the fact that he responded. I see where several legislators met with him last week and judging from the comments made after the meeting, maybe we are on the road to solving this problem. I sure hope so lest I start to dread July each year, knowing that the issue will surface again.



July 11, 2003

Thank you for sharing your thoughts about our Summer Reading Program assignment for incoming students, "Nickel and Dimed : On (not) Getting By In America."

Our goal with the Summer Reading Program is to stimulate critical thinking among our new undergraduates. The focus is on discussion and dialogue, not the book itself. We welcome all views on this topic; that is what we hope our students will bring with them to the program's discussion groups.

We expect students to read the book and arrive in August before classes begin prepared to discuss. They do so in small groups led by trained volunteer faculty and staff. The format provides plenty of opportunities for students to share why they agree or disagree with the book. And it encourages them to seek out other sources of information, including other books. There is no penalty for not participating-only a missed opportunity to learn.

"Nickel and Dimed" describes what it is like to live on the salary of a low paid employee. Taking various jobs as a waitress, cleaning woman, nursing home assistant and store employee - the author writes about trying to make ends meet. Many people, including Carolina students, their relatives and friends, have worked in such jobs at different times in their lives and have their own experience with which to compare and contrast those the author describes.

This book is a starting point for considering issues such as the income gap facing many Americans. We know that our students are keenly interested in their job prospects and standard of living after graduation. A book like "Nickel and Dimed" helps place the state and national economies in human terms instead of just statistics. What are the ramifications of working two or three jobs and not having health insurance, for example? Do our students know from first hand experience the meaning of North Carolina economy's shift away from relatively well paying manufacturing jobs for textiles in Cabarrus County and for furniture in Caldwell County? What about the prospects for the wage earner in Wilson when the tobacco warehouse closes down? What is the current role of education in our society as a traditional route up the ladder of income? More broadly, the book raises questions about the nature of an ethical employee as well as an ethical employer.

This is just one book, and the university neither endorses it or the author's views. With its selection by a committee of our faculty, staff and students, it has been widely used by other colleges and universities around the nation with similar programs including Appalachian State, UNC-Asheville, and Davidson College here in North Carolina.

Our responsibility to students is to provide an atmosphere in which they can deepen their sense of themselves ad the complex, often contradictory world around them. That is what the Summer Reading Program is designed to do. We want to create an intellectual climate in which students themselves can come to their own conclusions and turn information into insight. We believe in our students and trust their desire to read, to think and to learn.


James Moeser