It seems there’s a new protest against campus political correctness from a left-liberal academic appearing almost every day, and today’s entry comes from Todd Gitlin, who got his board certification as head of the SDS back in the 1960s. (He’s now a professor at Columbia.)
Which brings me to the subject of “trigger warnings.” This term does not refer to apprehension about the prospect of guns brought onto campus. It has to do with the subject matter and tenor of texts and films thought, rightly or wrongly, to be frightening. It’s argued that students who’ve been sexually assaulted are particularly vulnerable to flashbacks from unhealed traumas. At Columbia, students read Ovid’s Metamorphoses in the required Literature Humanities course (known familiarly as Lit Hum), which runs through the first year of the College’s Core Curriculum. Last year, one student advocate of trigger warnings scoured the entire Lit Hum syllabus and counted “80 instances of assault” in Ovid alone. There are rapes, there are more rapes, and there are attempted rapes. Partly to protect the vulnerable and partly on ideological principle, trigger-warning advocates want to mandate advance alerts in class. Teachers should be required to signal beforehand—Caution: Rapes Ahead.
Having annotated the entire curriculum, this student noted that in the assigned Lit Hum texts “mass rapes were almost always directed at a conquered group.” Who was responsible for these awful choices? she asked, and answered that Columbia’s once-overwhelmingly-dominant white males had compiled a virtual prayer book to enshrine the works—and privileges—of their group.
Put aside for the moment scholarly disputes about the influences of Egypt and Phoenicia on the ancient Greeks. Would the skin color or culture of the Athenians matter to anyone ? If the Greeks themselves had been people of color, would it then be permissible to read The Odyssey? The subject invites a host of absurdities, not least a penchant for rhetorical overkill. This student cited above went on to write: “Our intellectual inheritance is … often shoved down our throats by the administration as absolute and inalienable—we’re asked to be ‘critical readers,’ sure, but rarely to critically examine the content of the texts themselves.” If intellectual force-feeding is what this student experienced, he or she should have her tuition refunded. It’s hard for me to imagine that any of the 60-odd preceptors, faculty, and graduate students who teach the various 22-student sections of the Core command the uncritical ingestion of sacred texts. (I teach sections of another Core course, Contemporary Western Civilization, myself, I must disclose. I don’t teach that way.)
And like Judith Shulevitz in her New York Times article over the weekend, Gitlin thinks this all speaks ill of the character of millennials:
And on this score, it’s hard to resist the thought that overwrought charges against the trigger-happy curriculum are outgrowths of fragility, or perceptions of fragility, or of fears of fragility running amok. When students are held, or hold themselves, to be just minutes away from psychic disaster, is it because they know “real” fragility is sweeping across the land? Or has there arisen a new generational norm of fragility, against which fortifications are needed? Whatever the case, angst about fragility cuts across political lines and crosses campus borders. Shall we therefore stop talking about rape, lynching, death camps? Shall we stop reading the annals of civilization, which are, among other things, annals of slaughter? I was talking the other day to a Columbia sophomore, Tony Qian, who put the point pithily: “If you’re going to live outside Plato’s cave, you’ve got to be brave.” What ever happened to, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make ye free”? Not comfortable—free.
POSTSCRIPT: Right after I posted this, I came across Walter Russell Mead, offering similar reflections on his American Interest site:
These pieces, and others like them, are signs of a pushback against the infantilization of the university. But there’s still a long way to go before the cocoon culture rebalances itself—and the forces of prudish repression and PC lunacy remain strong. . .
Between the infantilizing of campus culture and the growing global harshness, something has to give and—hint, hint—it won’t be the real world. The worst thing about the current climate of PC stupidity and mandatory cocooning on campus isn’t the ugly repression it entails. The destruction of free speech and free debate in the institutions that ought to be the citadels of intellectual liberty is a terrible thing and a horrible betrayal of everything universities are supposed to be about. But there is yet a worse consequence: the catastrophic dumbing down and weakening of a younger generation that is becoming too fragile and precious to exist in the current world—much less to fight the real evils and dangers that are growing.
Hat tip: Glenn Reynolds.