AS A FRESHMAN packing for college, you may wonder, with a mixture of excitement and anxiety, what awaits you as you leave the family nest.
You may not realize, for example, that your first encounter with your new campus may place you smack in the middle of the cultural wars that have plagued college and universities for decades.
One battle focuses on the required reading assigned to entering freshmen for student orientation. Last year, the Virginia-based Family Policy Network, a Christian advocacy organization, and a small group of students, protested the reading of "Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations" by Michael Sells, chosen by the faculty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A lawsuit failed to block the required reading and, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, most of the 4,000 students appeared to enjoy the two-hour seminars at which students discussed religious worldviews.
The same Family Policy Network launched a protest last year against the University of Maryland at College Park when it distributed "The Laramie Project" -- a play that recounts the murder of a young, gay man in Wyoming -- to entering freshmen. According to Joan Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, "Such protests often include Christian groups who help ignite the controversy."
This year, a small campus group at the University of North Carolina has again protested this summer's "expected" (as opposed to required) reading -- Barbara Ehrenreich's "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America," an expose of poverty in the United States, which has remained on the New York Times best-seller list for 51 weeks. The group described the book as "a work of intellectual pornography with no redeeming characteristics."
Ehrenreich, a journalist and social critic, "went underground" and worked as a waitress, a cleaning woman, nursing-home assistant and Wal-Mart employee in three different cities. As she joined the working poor, she found herself unable to afford her rent and other necessities. Her book, written with humor and outrage, describes the abysmal conditions and humiliations faced by people who work at unskilled jobs for subsistence wages. (Ironically, the groundskeepers and housekeepers at the North Carolina campus recently launched a campaign to raise their minimum wage to $10 an hour from $5.15 -- and are holding a teach-in on Ehrenreich's book.)
Other colleges have also assigned Ehrenreich's book, without igniting any public protests. Mansfield University, a public university in Pennsylvania, sent every entering student a free copy of her book, which, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, ranks sixth among books being read by college students.
Many colleges and universities offer a list of recommended, rather than required, books. At UC Berkeley, Steve Tollefson, in the Office of Educational Development, told me that entering freshmen have received a faculty-selected list of books on war and peace. "Ironically," he laughed, "the most controversial subject has provoked no controversy at all." The reading list, however, is superb and can be viewed at www.lib.berkeley. edu/TeachingLib/SummerReading.
These academic skirmishes -- part of the larger national cultural wars -- involve far more than required reading for freshmen college students. Battles rage over curriculum, as well the content of specific courses. Last year's teach-ins on the Iraq war ignited fiery debates among faculty and students. Different groups also attacked courses that focused on gay sexuality or Palestinian culture.
The cultural wars, of course, are not all that new. When I entered college, the required reading was Joseph Heller's "Catch 22," which prompted many parental complaints but, for me, sparked a lifetime of healthy skepticism.
College is a time to encounter and sort out competing ideas, beliefs and values. The best advice I can offer those who will soon enter this swirling scene is to think for yourself. Or, to quote more elegant words from Shakespeare's Hamlet: "To thine own self be true. . ."
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle