Guest commentary: A closer look at 'Soul of a Citizen' by its author

Imagine being caricatured for someone’s political crusade. In this case, one disgruntled Florida Gulf Coast University student got a national podium to attack “Soul of a Citizen,” my book on citizen involvement. The conservative Web site used the student’s complaint to brand assigning my book as “leftist abuse,” or what the student termed “indoctrination.”

Never mind that the rest of her peers liked the book so much they lined up to get their copies signed this past spring after an enthusiastic student invited me to speak. Or that the head of University of North Carolina Charlotte’s Young Republicans said the professor who assigned it had “redeemed” his “faith in humanity.” Never mind that “Soul” has encouraged FGCU students to undertake community-related projects ranging from tutoring students in local schools to raising $20,000 to buy malaria nets for Africa.

Or that many students have told their professors it was one of the few books they wouldn’t sell back at the term’s end. I also feel proud that with more than 100,000 copies of the book in print, readers have found only a single factual inaccuracy, a minor error in the origin of the “Serenity Prayer.”

I’ve seen students from every kind of background respond wonderfully to “Soul,” including staunch conservatives. But CampusReform would prefer Florida students not be exposed to the book. Their attack reduces stories I tell of courageous individuals to simplistic political categories. Is it leftist abuse to read about Rosa Parks? Or a Korean mini-mall owner whose Christian faith led him to hire a young African-American man who’d tried to steal a pair of pants from his clothing store? Or a coalition to save family fishing that ranged from the Assemblies of God churches to the Sierra Club? In “Soul’s” revised edition, I write about Vaclav Havel and others who bravely challenged Eastern European communist dictatorships. Is it abuse or indoctrination to read about them?

CampusReform also attacked me for writing about global climate change, a reality they keep denying. The same week, the American Chemical Society joined our country’s other largest scientific associations in urging Congress to act on the issue, and British conservatives condemned their Labor opponents for not doing enough. Is that more leftist abuse?

CampusReform also attacked some of FGCU’s finest professors, like civic-engagement coordinator Maria Roca. Roca actively requires her students to interview people with whose views or approaches they strongly disagree, to learn how they see the world. Liberals are encouraged to interview conservatives, and conservatives to interview liberals. One young woman even did a sympathetic paper on Jehovah’s Witnesses, who she’d always found incomprehensible. Is this “leftist abuse” too? Or is it exactly the kind of thoughtful civil discourse that we need in these polarized times?

Most of us read books we dislike at some point in our education. But schools exist where no one challenges student preconceptions. Fundamentalist madrassas fit that bill. So did the Soviet schools, which encouraged students to blow the whistle on “subversive” teachings. Those are hardly models to follow.

Students will inevitably disagree with some material they read. That’s a good thing. I’d have felt honored had FGCU student Kim Legendre voiced her disagreements with particular opinions and then let the book encourage her to act on her own more conservative values, as it has so many others.

Legendre’s professor accommodated her, by having her read The Wall Street Journal instead of The New York Times, and encouraging her to speak out in class. But that wasn’t enough, so she joined forces with CampusReform.

This national organization sets itself up as America’s political and cultural commissars, declaring which subjects, authors or approaches are valid, and enlisting a handful of discontented students to attack resources that most other students find enormously useful.

CampusReform not only targets particular faculty or readings, but seeks to intimidate faculty or administrators into deeming certain books, authors and subjects too controversial to touch. Once faculty start deciding not to assign books that a handful of students might deem too liberal — or too conservative — then they lose the ability to examine reality, being reduced to platitudes and baby talk. And students lose their right to an education that engages them in real issues.

It’s sad that an FGCU student let herself get used for such a cause.

Loeb is the author of “Soul of a Citizen” (updated edition to be published in April 2010) and “The Impossible Will Take a Little While,” named the No. 3 political book of 2004 by the History Channel and the American Book Association. An affiliate scholar at Seattle’s Center for Ethical Leadership, he’s written for The New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Orlando Sentinel, St. Petersburg Times and the Tampa Tribune, and lectured at over 400 colleges. Connect with Loeb at

© 2009 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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