Columbia University’s descent into madness continues.
Columbia University’s student newspaper recently featured four members of the school’s student Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board demanding that professors consider their students’ delicate sensibilites when teaching intense, violent or otherwise provocative material. This will give you a flavor of what the students advocate:
“Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” is a fixture of Lit Hum, but like so many texts in the Western canon, it contains triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities in the classroom. These texts, wrought with histories and narratives of exclusion and oppression, can be difficult to read and discuss as a survivor, a person of color, or a student from a low-income background…Students need to feel safe in the classroom, and that requires a learning environment that recognizes the multiplicity of their identities. The MAAB has been meeting with administration and faculty in the Center for the Core Curriculum to determine how to create such a space. The Board has recommended three measures: First, we proposed that the center issue a letter to faculty about potential trigger warnings and suggestions for how to support triggered students. Next, we noted that there should be a mechanism for students to communicate their concerns to professors anonymously, as well as a mediation mechanism for students who have identity-based disagreements with professors. Finally, the center should create a training program for all professors, including faculty and graduate instructors, which will enable them to constructively facilitate conversations that embrace all identities, share best practices, and think critically about how the Core Curriculum is framed for their students.”
I take a lot of criticism on the blog for not expressing false respect when someone espouses a position that is cultural cyanide, or, in some cases, just plain stupid. This argument by the Columbia students would qualify. Some affirmatively bad ideas should not be pampered, mollycoddled or treated as if they deserve sustained attention and debate. It just encourages them. Long ago I feared that the multi-culturalism and diversity movements would run amuck, and indeed they have. Being literate,respectful and tolerant, as well as open-minded, toward other cultures is healthy and essentially American. Nevertheless, nations, societies and communities require a consistent culture, as well as the cultural values that a dominant culture contains. Ethics, among other critical features of a healthy society, is impossible without this, and chaos is inevitable.
Education, and the process of strengthening young minds in their ability to keep expanding, evolving, analyzing and learning, demands exposure to a full range of art, history, traditions, expressions and ideas. The belief that one must be insured against incursions from any ideas, stories, images or expression that might be emotionally intense, shocking or upsetting is a form of censorship, as if students in their teens and 20’s have any standing to pronounce what is or isn’t going to be useful and stimulating for them to learn. The Columbia Spectator article is a manifesto for a lot of damaging values and processes: restriction of knowledge, pre-judging new concepts, restriction of influences, ossification of ideologies, the inability to control emotions, weenyism, and more.
I know there are reasons for such silly student posturing. Among them is the crippling cost of education, which suggests that students, as consumers, should be able to dictate the product and service. Good theory, but wrong: students don’t know enough to know what they need to see, read, think about and analyze to reach their full potential. There is no difference between a woman demanding she must be shielded from material depicting violence to women, a Native American refusing to watch “Stagecoach”: in a film class, and a conservative Christian insisting that the theories of Charles Darwin are so shattering to his world view that he should not be exposed to them. A proper institutional response to all three assertions is “That’s ridiculous.”
Trigger warnings have no legitimacy in education or the marketplace of ideas. One of the vital life skills one needs to learn in college, if somehow it has eluded you before, is how to process new information without becoming incapacitated by emotional reactions. Those who suggest otherwise are simply wrong—there is such a thing as clear-cut wrong, you know—and should be told this by their wiser elders without ambiguity or excessive gentleness. “You need to grow up,” “I don’t know where you got such an idea, but it’s absurd,” or “I think you need to see someone” may be appropriate, and the astute use of these and other phrases that serve as a dousing of metaphorical ice water can be the verbal equivalent of the stitch in time that can save nine. A sharp, “You are talking like an idiot” may stop someone from becoming an idiot, or making idiots of others. Enabling censoriousness and weenyism is a breach of duty. Writes Reason’s Elizabeth Nolan Brown:
“Apparently this discussion of Ovid was so threatening it was a matter of self-preservation to ignore it. If that’s really true—if the mere discussion of rape causes this student to feel panicked and physically unsafe—then she needs help treating severe post-traumatic stress disorder, not a fucking trigger warning. I say that with no judgment; being raped can obviously be traumatic enough to produce lingering psychological trauma. But that’s what that level of reaction represents: psychological trauma. Which, while something professors should be sensitive to, shouldn’t dictate the parameters of acceptable education for all students.”
Of course. And we should not pretend that it is rational or reasonable to assert otherwise, even if it means telling too-sensitive students to grow up, and to stop being ridiculous.
UPDATE: It’s a little more than an hour after I posted this, and now I find that Peggy Noonan has column out on the same topic, inspired by the same source. You can read it here.