Katherine Kersten: Shock therapy for freshmen at St. Thomas shockingly trite

The University of St. Thomas' latest attempt at freshman shock therapy is in full swing. The vehicle is the school's "common text" -- a book, chosen annually, that all freshman English students must read and discuss.

If you've ever wondered where the idea comes from that colleges and universities have become liberal indoctrination camps, well, it comes from rituals like this.

As usual, this year's common text isn't a literary classic by a Dead White Male. It's "The Handmaid's Tale," an ideologically freighted polemic by feminist novelist Margaret Atwood.

Here's a summary: Right-wing Christian fanatics have taken over America and imposed a theocratic state. Women are virtual slaves, the continent is awash in pollution, abortionists are executed. Many fertile women must become "handmaids" -- reproductive machines -- who are compelled to breed with male "Commanders."The Handmaid's Tale" portrays the dominant Christian culture of the future as totalitarian and consumed with hatred toward women. The book includes graphic scenes of sexual abuse.

It describes in gritty detail, for example, the way that a handmaid must lie between the legs of a Commander's wife while he copulates with the handmaid.

Novels with these themes -- the oppression of women, environmental catastrophe, and other '60s bugaboos beloved of Baby Boom professors -- are a dime a dozen. Why did St. Thomas single out "The Handmaid's Tale" for a year-long, campus-wide discussion?

Prof. Amy Muse, chair of the common text committee, explained this to the campus newspaper by quoting another author: "We are not looking for a text that will reproduce you, but for a text that will redefine you."

Since its publication in 1985, "The Handmaid's Tale" has often appeared on "most challenged" book lists, because parents and students have objected to its inclusion in curricula or school libraries. No record is more certain to make an English professor's heart go pit-a-pat. It offers an exhilarating opportunity to leap on the barricades to defend academic freedom against the philistine hordes.

Admittedly, "The Handmaid's Tale" is not exactly the best vehicle for such a project. In literary circles, it's utterly passé -- conjuring up long-vanished bogeymen like televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker.

But hey, Minnesota is flyover country, not the East Coast. Profs may expect that this tired text will still shock some folks here. St. Thomas is, after all, a Catholic institution, and fuddy-duddy trustees might raise a ruckus.

For decades, the archbishop of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has led the university's board, automatically serving as chair. The incoming archbishop, John Nienstedt, has a reputation for orthodoxy and might be expected to exert his influence now.

But far from raising questions about the professors' determination to lead St. Thomas boldly back to the 1960s, the trustees seem to be going along.

On Oct. 25, they effectively bumped the incoming archbishop from the board. They did so by voting to eliminate ex officio members, and then inviting back as individuals those -- such as retiring Archbishop Harry Flynn -- who have not interfered in the past with the institution's leftward tilt.

St. Thomas spokesman Doug Hennes says the bylaws change has been under discussion for several years, and is unrelated to Nienstedt's appointment.

The selection of "The Handmaid's Tale" has also drawn no apparent flak from donors to St. Thomas' recently launched $500 million capital campaign.

That leaves just the students to object. As freshman Sarah Fink put it, "By being so graphic, the book presents a demeaning and unrealistic view of women." She says that college authorities "try to make you feel immature if you disagree." Fink is "disgusted" that no alternative book choices are available.

Generally, however, students know it's useless to object. Many have been through similar ideological browbeating in high school and can regurgitate this stuff in their sleep.

Ho hum, some seem to be saying. When does the real education begin?

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