Do universities these days coddle their students? Do progressive dreams of inclusive campuses result in hothouse indignation? That’s the charge from pundits as students complain of hostile classrooms. Far from a problem, though, this trigger-warning brouhaha should be cause to celebrate, for two reasons.
In recent days, commentators have leaped upon a story from Columbia University. A group of students published a complaint about insensitive classrooms and professors. One student had been forced to endure a discussion of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, replete with stories of rape and assault. The problem was not just Ovid. The students wrote,
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.
Even worse, when students complained about these texts, or suggested other authors such as Toni Morrison, they were pooh-poohed or dismissed.
Predictably, writers from a variety of religious and ideological backgrounds have pointed out some of the over-the-top elements of such student protests. Atheist author Jerry Coyne denounced the students’ “Literature Fascism.” Conservative columnist Peggy Noonan cussed the over-sensitivity of the “trigger-happy generation.”
Noonan pulled no punches. She blasted this “significant and growing form of idiocy” as something that must be addressed. “I notice lately,” Noonan goes on,
that some members of your generation are being called, derisively, Snowflakes. Are you really a frail, special and delicate little thing that might melt when the heat is on?
Do you wish to be known as the first generation that comes with its own fainting couch? Did first- and second-wave feminists march to the barricades so their daughters and granddaughters could act like Victorians with the vapors?
Everyone in America gets triggered every day. Many of us experience the news as a daily microaggression. Who can we sue, silence or censor to feel better?
Ouch. Before we talk about why these crusty columnists give us cause for celebration, let us make a few complaints. First, contra Noonan, this is not a generational thing. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are keenly aware, Columbia and other elite schools are nearly beside the point when it comes to understanding the broad picture of higher education in this country. They attract a tremendously disproportionate share of commentator attention, but almost no one attends such schools.
And even in the calculated environment of Columbia, the student protesters represent only a tiny sliver of the student body. As Noonan smartly pointed out, the reaction from other Columbia students was not sympathetic. One student wrote, “These girls’ parents need a refund.”
Second, anyone of a certain age can attest to the fact that these same discussions have been happening—with different buzzwords—for the last fifty years. I remember my days as a student radical, back in the 1980s. Sure enough, at one of our indignant protest meetings with a dean, one student complained that the dean’s cigarette smoke was causing her some anguish. His response? Deal with it, Snowflake. Nowadays, of course, I can’t imagine any college official smoking during a meeting, but the general tenor of student complaint was the same.
In spite of all that, this dustup over trigger warnings should give us cause for celebration. Why? First of all, it has brought together indignant “kids-these-days” jeremiads from all sides of our campus culture wars. Atheists and conservative Catholics, liberals and conservatives, Jerry Coynes and Peggy Noonans . . . a variety of pundits can agree that this sort of student activism is both silly and counterproductive. Any time we can have people from different culture-war perspectives agree on something, we can build on that.
Second, as historian Andrew Hartman has pointed out recently, simply having students who seem to care about Ovid and Toni Morrison is a refreshing sort of culture-war problem. Too often, those kinds of disputes over the proper types of college reading have been replaced by more frightening existential questions of whether or not colleges will fund literature departments.
So rejoice, all those who yearn for robust college campus life! When students are interested in the morals of their reading lists, we might suspect that they are actually doing the reading. When students come together to protest against campus policies, we might hope that they will remain active citizens as they age and fatten. And finally, whenever an issue can bring together curmudgeonly elders from a variety of culture-war positions, there is hope that we all can continue to have robust, controversial conversations.