Literature and Tolerance at the University of St. Thomas
Mikolajczak, Michael Allen, Academe
Faced with public hostility, a Catholic university explains the importance of exploring challenging ideas.
WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 3, 1999, IS A day that will live long in my memory and the memory of the University of St. Thomas. It was the day our first-year class assembled to hear Mark Doty speak about his memoir, Heaven's Coast, which we had assigned as a common text for the first course of our core sequence in literature and writing. It was a day that ended several months of controversy and of ugly words and behavior. And for academic freedom, it was a day of success.
Students in all sections of "Critical Reading and Writing I: Fiction and Non-Fiction Prose" read one book in common during the same week of the year, allowing for cross-sectional discussions and programs. Ideally, the week culminates in a visit to campus by the author. The idea is to immerse all students in one book-to make that book an exciting, much-talked-about affair on campus. Or, to put it another way, the common text is intended to be the university's intellectual campus for the week-a field for the mindful exercise of intellect and heart.
Since 1990, the department has used two criteria in selecting its common text: literary excellence and the potential of the book to deepen our students' understanding of diversity. One of our texts was Toni Morrison's Beloved; it worked so well that we chose it twice: first in 1991 and again in 1994. We have also taught Louise Erdrich's Tracks, Mike Rose's Lives on the Boundary, and Carlos Fuentes' Old Gringo. Between 1990 and 1998, we dealt with all the "valences of diversity" noted in our departmental handbook-race, ethnicity, gender, religion, class, sexual orientation, and geopolitical positioning--all, that is, except sexual orientation.
The time had come, several of my colleagues felt, to address all the valences, and one of them nominated Heaven's Coast, a moving and beautifully written account of Doty's mourning of the loss of his partner Wally to AIDS. The choice was not unanimous. But most of the department felt it to be an important choice, a somewhat bold but not particularly radical one certainly not one incompatible with our identity as a Catholic university.
Heaven's Coast was chosen in May 1998 for the fall of that year. I had just been appointed chair, and my term was to begin July 1, 1998. I supported the choice wholeheartedly but agreed with my predecessor that we could not teach the book well with so little time for discussion and preparation. He and I persuaded the department to postpone it for a year, to fall 1999. (Some of our colleagues felt this delay to be discriminatory.) Then we began to think about how to teach this book by a writer Robert Coles says is "warm, honest, generous-a writer with so very much to tell us, teach us, and give to us."
My predecessor and I immediately met with the university president to inform him that the common text for fall 1999 would be Doty's book. We did not go to seek permission, nor advice. We simply wanted him to know about it in the event of opposition or criticism. It was a courtesy call. In turn, our president calmly and clearly lent his support. He and I agreed that the chair of the board of trustees, who is also the archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis, should be informed for the same reason that the department had informed him. The president wrote to the archbishop, and all was set until May 5, 1999, a kind of "day of infamy" that ushered in six months of commotion.
On May 5, as I was putting on my coat to go to St. Thomas, a neighbor pushed under my door a page from the Minneapolis Star Tribune. On it was a sticky note saying, "You may want to read this before going into the office." The page carried an editorial, "St. Thomas Stoops Far Too Low in Its Next Common Text," by Katherine Kersten, an occasional columnist for the paper and a director of the Center for the American Experiment. I was not entirely surprised to see the article, for Kersten had phoned me a few days before, and I had tried to explain our choice, to provide a context for it, and to reflect on the role literature has in liberal education and in human affairs. But I was surprised by the tone of Kersten's article, her obvious interest in creating a sensationalist stir, her distortions of Heaven's Coast and our conversation, and her narrow notion of a religiously affiliated university.
Kersten charged that "in Doty's view, sex is about pleasure, period." She particularly zeroed in on one passage in which Doty writes of casual sex (the only such moment in the book); her conclusion: "This is the stuff of Cosmopolitan magazine dressed up in big words." And she dismissed Doty's several allusions to the Book of Job as lacing in his "New Age spiritual reflections." Kersten pointed out Doty's disagreement with Christianity, but the situation is much more complex than she let on.
In his first chapter, "Sweet Chariot: February 1994," Doty reflects on his religious upbringing, on the two religions in which he grew up-one of lovely images and the other of "codes of explanation and prohibition." He continues to love his first religion because "the images allow for desire, allow room for us-even require us-to complete them, to dream our way into them." This religion allows for participation in, not possession of, the world. The second religion had, for him, "constructed the earth as a kind of spiritual minefield." It did not comport with his head and heart. It may be unorthodox in some eyes, but Doty's choice of images over codes is his faith decision. One may disagree with it, but cannot dismiss it nor mock it.
Kersten's article proceeds to two other matters: why the nature of a Christian college precludes books like Heaven's Coast and whether students at Christian colleges should read books "that deal with life's grittier topics." I do not quarrel with Kersten's belief that a Christian college should treat the ethical dimension of questions and issues, as the department did with Doty's text, but I do take issue with her desiccated notion of compassion, a quality I brought up in our phone conversation when I called her attention to the pastoral letter by American Catholic bishops: "Called to Compassion and Responsibility: A Response to the HIV/AIDS Crisis."
I found her treatment of the second matter annoyingly insouciant. Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra and Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man-titles I brought up in our phone conversation as equally problematic for her position as Heaven's Coast-are blithely pronounced permissible. What Kersten's position is, I am still not clear, other than that Christian colleges ought not to teach books that are "immoral" or that contradict church teaching. Yet Shakespeare's play is about adultery. And in Portrait, Stephen Daedalus attacks Catholicism as a blight on his country and as soul killing to the artist.
Our Office for University Relations arranged with the Star Tribune for a response by me. It appeared on May 10, 1999, with the headline "Kersten Wrongs Book, Author, and College." I be an with a quotation that captured the fundamental flaw of Kersten's position. I wrote: "The literary critic George Steiner says that to understand a text the reader must exercise Ia courtesy or tact of heart' that honestly tries to hear what is being said." There was no honest hearing, no "tact of heart" in Kersten's piece. That is the point. For judgment to be right, one must first honestly engage (even embrace) the situation, the case, the book. One must exercise tact of heart. But Kersten mugged responsible judgment. I pointed out that Kersten's piece "misrepresents the whole of the book, wrenches passages out of context, and meanly denigrates the suffering search of a child of God."
In my phone conversation with Kersten, I mentioned that the department was committed to teaching Heaven's Coast "in a scholarly fashion" and with reference to "Called to Compassion" and "Always Our Chilren: A Pastoral Message to Parents of Homosexual Children and Suggestions for Pastoral Ministers. In particular, I stressed that I considered the teaching of Heaven's Coast to be a fulfillment of the bishops' very precise definition of compassion: "Compassion is much more than sympathy. It involves an experience of intimacy by which one participates in another's life." There was no mention in Kersten's article, except for her attenuated version of compassion at the end, of the Catholic Church's deep structure of concern, care, and ultimate acceptance of gay people.
To Kersten's reduction of the book as "the stuff of Cosmopolitan magazine, dressed up in big words," I answered,
The book is about many complexly interrelated issues. So encompassing are its concerns that it defies easy characterization. It is a book about loss and grief, finding a home in the world, the power of metaphor, the duality of human creatures, the beauty of creation and the joy of existence, the finding of spiritual meaning, the realization of being upheld by an "immense kindness" in existence, the mystery of death, the importance of not settling for easy answers, and the role of art in human affairs. But to read Kersten, one would think that this is a book about sex. It is not. Nor, as she charges, is it a political tract (Doty presses no agenda; he simply writes thinkingly and feelingly about his experience). Heaven's Coast is an account of one man's journey from the "sea-swirl of shock and loss" to a sense of grace and to the beautiful question: "Is that my work, to point to the world and say, `See how darkly it sparkles?"'
Phone calls and letters rushed in. A shock-jock radio program ridiculed the book and the university. A local news station did a story on it. I talked to countless people in person and on the phone, was threatened over the phone ("you'll be in hell with Wally next year"), received pornographic post cards, and was spat upon in downtown Minneapolis by someone in a suit muttering about Heaven's Coast. It was not a happy time.
What carried the day was the unusual community St. Thomas has managed to develop. Kersten's article turned out to be (to use an old-fashioned term) "an occasion of grace." Heaven's Coast was "taken up" all over the place. It was read and formally discussed by the offices for university relations, admissions, residence life, and student affairs, as well as by the Campus Ministry and the School of Social Work at St. Thomas-St. Catherine's. The department held "brown bag" discussions during the lunch hour. The Center for Faculty Affairs sponBored several events and provided copies of the book to faculty, students, and staff for five dollars. Heaven's Coast became the most widely read of our common texts ever, thanks to Kersten and all who assisted her opposition. Chiefly, though, it was read because of itself-its power of metaphor, depth of thought amid the pain of mourning, and basic humanity.
What clinched "the day" was our first-year class. Here I return to Wednesday, November 3, 1999, the day of Doty's visit. They gave him a standing ovation when he took the stage. They filled the aisles and listened attentively and asked thoughtful questions about writing and metaphor. There was not even one unseemly question or remark. Nor was Doty himself coy or condescending as visiting writers sometimes are. He respected our students. They, in turn, honored him with a final standing ovation.
The next day, November 4, Thursday, Dory participated in a panel sponsored by the Center for Faculty Development. The event was open to faculty, staff, and students. A theologian, staff member, and student commented for five minutes each on Heaven's Coast. Then Doty spoke for about twenty minutes. After-ward, there were questions. At the very end, a male student stood to thank Doty for his presence on campus and to say that he and his friends returned to the dorms the previous evening talking not about the usual trivia but about life and art and feelings-matters they don't usually talk about. It was an electric moment, a moment of epiphany. It revealed that American students can take a serious book seriously. It demonstrated again that students can, in the words of writer Mike Rose, "float to the mark." The student's remark, although somewhat unusual, was typical on that day. A student leaving the honors section that Doty had visited declared the hour "awesome."
Finally, I never doubted the support of our president. He was stalwart and gracious, from start to finish. My appreciation of the university's "controversial issues policy," formulated by faculty and staff and adopted by the board of trustees in 1994, was renewed. That policy states, "The university exists as an environment which not only allows, but encourages, members of its community to ask questions and openly explore challenging ideas in their personal search for truth." The reception of Heaven's Coast on campus proves that this policy is not merely words on a page, but living practice. But most important, I never really worried about our students, nor about my colleagues who would teach them.
But there is one rub I must mention, personally troubling though it was, in this story of academic freedom. In September 1999 I was invited to the fall meeting of the executive committee of the board of trustees. Even though the board's academic affairs committee and the board itself had affirmed the board's support for the department the previous May, some trustees were not yet assured of our purpose or our scholarly approach to the book. I explained why Heaven's Coast was an important text and how we would teach it. I did my usual celebration of the book's images and metaphor; I recall in particular savoring Doty's naming of the salt marsh "a theater of furious mutability." Although the meeting was intense, I thought it valuable.
Toward the end, though, some confusion arose over how the department would reference church documents in teaching the book. At the time, "Called to Compassion" and "Always Our Children" were online at the department's Web site, on reserve in the library, and available for the asking in the department. These documents had been made widely available to anyone in the community who wanted them, and the president included copies in his responses to letters about Heaven's Coast.
In my response to Kersten in the Star Tribune, I emphasized our "attention to the Catholic Church's pastoral letters." I remember taking pains with this sentence, especially with the word "attention." I give "attention" to various expressions of anti-Semitism-especially Marlowe's The Jew of Malta-when I teach Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. I describe Marlowe's character and read one or two of his speeches, but I don't distribute the play. This was what I meant by attention. But my attention to the pastoral letters was somehow translated into an intention to distribute them. The confusion was unfortunate, but it needed to be addressed.
I was not comfortable asking my colleagues to distribute the documents in their classes. In my view, that would have been an inappropriate intrusion into their pedagogy and an imposition that many might have found personally unacceptable. So I proposed that the university mail out the documents to students with a cover letter from me.
In the letter, I lamented that criticism of Heaven's Coast had "often been made in the absence of a careful reading-- the kind of reading we teach and expect at St. Thomas." I underscored the importance of diversity, and I quoted Pope John Paul II's statement to the United Nations in October 1999: "To cut oneself off from the reality of difference-or worse, to attempt to stamp out that difference-is to cut oneself off from the possibility of sounding the depths of the mystery of human life." Finally, I noted the extraordinariness of my letter:
I am saddened by the need for this letter, and I fervently hope it is taken by everyone for what it is-a gesture of good will and healing, amidst a climate of misunderstanding, a climate that permitted two young men to beat Matthew Shephard and to lash him to a fence post in Wyoming to die in the cold night air. With no other book has my department had to take these extraordinary measures. But the best way, I believe, to fight misunderstanding is not the clenched fist but the open hand. Matthew Shephard died because of clenched fists. Moreover, this letter gives me the opportunity to emphasize that in these documents the Church authorizes no one to use hateful speech, to ridicule or ostracize, or to create a climate of fear.
The letter was dated October 1, 1999. I had no idea how long stuffing the envelopes with the documents would take. That was in the hands of our mail service. As irony would have it, students received it on the anniversary of Matthew Shephard's death.
Our hope was to teach students the power of beautifully wrought language and, in the words of William Dean Howells, "to widen the bonds of sympathy" for all people. If we did this-as I believe we did-then ours is more than a success story in academic freedom. It is an affirmation of the power of story and of language. Frederick Douglass desired to read and write because he wanted to be free. But he and his people would not be free until they could tell their story. On our campus, at the end of the twentieth century, Doty had his story of sorrow and grace read by over a thousand students.
The crocodile of censorious intolerance did not eat us. Long and thick and threatening was its tail, but we grabbed it and hurled the creature, gnashing its teeth, back to the swamp. 0
Michael Allen Mikolajczak is professor of English and chair of the department at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. He teaches courses in Shakespeare, Milton, sixteenth- and seventeenthcentury British literature, rhetoric, and religion and literature.…
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Publication information: Article title: Literature and Tolerance at the University of St. Thomas. Contributors: Mikolajczak, Michael Allen - Author. Magazine title: Academe. Volume: 87. Issue: 1 Publication date: January/February 2001. Page number: 23+. © American Association of University Professors Nov/Dec 2008. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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