According to the admissions office of Connecticut College in New London, it is a campus where "differences of opinion are respected and celebrated as legitimate avenues to new understanding."
Some of the professors on that campus, however, strongly believe that differences of opinion -- especially in books -- can go too far. Much too far. And their job is to shield students from such books as will do them harm.
Each spring, at the suggestion of Claire Gaudiani, president of the college, a committee of faculty and students selects a list of books for summer reading by students, professors, parents and alumni. In the fall and winter, the readers convene and dissect the books, and each other.
One of the books this year was Camille Paglia's "Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson" (Vintage). Paglia sees literature and the rest of the world as a tournament, and her mission is to unhorse fashionable literary and intellectual figures and theories. A fierce critic of orthodox modern feminism, Paglia believes attention must be paid to differences among the genders:
"When I cross the George Washington Bridge ... I think men have done this. ... If civilization had been left in female hands, we would still be livingin grass huts." She herself smites men as mercilessly as she does women. And she can be a very penetrating critic: "Lewis Carroll is the true poet of childhood, with its mystery, cruelty and blatant aggressions."
When her book was revealed to be one of the summer challenges for the Connecticut College community, a number of professors worked hard to remove it from the list. There were letters to the college paper and petitions that included dread passages from the book.
"Sexual Personae" was labeled a "hate" book, condoning hatred of women. Would parents -- said the objectors -- really want to send their children to a college that put its imprimatur on such a book? And there were professors who compared Paglia's book to "Mein Kampf."
Janet Gezari, acting director of the Women's Studies program, sounded like a goodly number of professors elsewhere who write law review articles calling for suppression of certain kinds of speech on college campuses. "Whenever we think about freedom of expression," Prof. Gezari said, "we need to think also about the damage that certain kinds of speech can do. Let's not be fooled by the packaging into mistaking any hate speech or sexist or racist doctrine for ideas."
But, said a Hartford Courant editorial, "Sexist or racist doctrines are ideas. They may be repugnant ideas, but that doesn't stop them from being powerful, and therefore worthy of the attention of people who may not agree with them."
Robert W. Baldwin, an assistant professor of history, noted solemnly, "We wouldn't put a racist book on a summer reading list. That list has to be more sensitive."
John Gordon, an English professor who considers much of the faculty "politically correct," noted mordantly, "There's a much more narrow range of opinions here than there is in the average bar."
But the students in particular saved the book -- and the intellectual credibility -- of Connecticut College. One of the champions of free thought on campus was Lauren Klatzkin, who was on the selection committee and had proposed Paglia's book. Klatzkin was surprised to see "a great deal of intolerance that I would have sworn a few months ago did not exist at Connecticut College." And she made an unerringly pertinent point in talking to Katherine Farrish of the Hartford Courant:
"What is more dangerous -- to talk about ideas in the open, or to pretend they do not exist? If we cannot discuss controversial ideas here, where can we have open-minded debate?"
These days, on many campuses, this is the kind of question that students find it necessary to ask those professors who, like Janet Gezari, insist that students should not read books like "Sexual Personae" that abound in heresies.
The president of the student government, Colleen Shanley, tried to educate the faculty vigilantes: "We should not be removing books from reading lists because we don't agree with them."
The civil war between those who are afraid of books and those who are not has abated somewhat at Connecticut College as the reading list committee decided to also include Susan Faludi's "Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women" In it Faludi says that Paglia's book is anti-feminist.
Commenting on the inclusion of the Faludi book, the Hartford Courant notes that "the ideologues at Connecticut College" surely feel more comfortable with "Backlash" but "they should remember that in order to criticize 'Sexual Personae,' Ms. Faludi first had to read it."