Trigger . . . a Celebration

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.

Warning: Woman turns into a tree...

Warning: Woman turns into a tree…

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.

Liberalism Leads to Campus Rape

Well-intentioned liberal rules—plus “binge drinking”—led us to an epidemic of campus sexual assaults.  That is the equation offered recently by conservative intellectual Patrick Deneen.  Deneen argues that the abdication of control by universities in the 1960s, meant to liberate students, has pushed the federal government to step in.

In recent days, we at ILYBYGTH have wondered about the connection between conservative Christianity and campus sexual assault.  Do overzealous reporters try to use uniformed bluster about “fundamentalism” to smear conservative religious peopleOr does there seem to be something peculiarly dangerous about authoritarian institutions such as fundamentalist colleges?

Professor Deneen has different concerns.  He notes the recent announcement by the federal government that it is investigating fifty-five universities for their handling of sexual-assault cases.  When universities and colleges fail to maintain the safety and security of their students, the Office of Civil Rights will step in.

As Deneen points out, this responsibility for the sexual morality of students used to be the responsibility of the universities themselves.  College graduates of a certain age may remember the elaborate rules that enveloped college-student social lives before the 1960s.  Female students at mainstream colleges—even at public institutions—often had to check in with “dorm mothers” at nine o’clock.  In every aspect of student life, the college took on the role of the parent.  In every way, the college acted in loco parentis—in place of the parent.

Of course, in the 1960s campuses in the US and around the world became hotbeds of political and cultural upheaval.  Students demanded more freedom, and they got it.  At many schools, in loco parentis rules were scrapped.  In many schools, indeed, core curricula were also scrapped in the name of freedom.  For instance, at my own beloved school, Binghamton University, students staged the “Bermuda Revolution.”  Not quite up to the office occupations and shotgun-wielding demands that rocked our neighbors at Columbia University or Cornell, but Bearcats managed to come together to protest strict student rules.  At Binghamton, the Bermuda Revolution brought students out to our Peace Quad clad in Bermuda shorts.  At the time, this was against the stern, traditional dress code that required shirts and ties for men and skirts and blouses for women.  As a result, the university changed those rules, giving students more freedom over their own lives.

Campus Revolutionaries, Binghamton Style

Campus Revolutionaries, Binghamton Style

One unintended consequence of this freedom is that more young people on college campuses have been exposed to sexual violence.  When students have more opportunity to drink alcohol and stay out late, more students find themselves in situations that lead to sexual assault.  As a result, the federal government has stepped in to investigate the way universities respond to charges of rape and sexual assault.

Professor Deneen argues that this tale of freedom gone awry can be seen as the history of liberalism in a nutshell.  As he puts it,

Longstanding local rules and cultures that governed behavior through education and cultivation of certain kinds of norms, manners, and morals, came to be regarded as an oppressive limitation upon the liberty of individuals. Those forms of control were lifted in the name of liberation, leading to regularized abuse of those liberties. In the name of redressing the injustices of those abuses, the federal government was seen as the only legitimate authority for redress and thereby exercised powers (ones that often require creative interpretations of federal law to reach down into private institutions) to re-regulate the liberated behaviors. However, now there is no longer a set of “norms” that seek to cultivate forms of self-rule, since this would constitute an unjust limitation of our freedom. Now there can only be punitive threats that occur after the fact. One cannot seek to limit the exercise of freedom before the fact (presumably by using at one’s disposal education in character and virtue); one can only punish after the fact when one body has harmed another body.

Conservative Christian colleges may have a unique set of challenges when dealing with the issue of sexual assault.  But Professor Deneen argues that sexual assault on other campuses has been a result of liberalism, not traditionalism.  Loose rules and permissive attitudes, Deneen notes, have led to an anything-goes culture.  The resulting “sexual anarchy” has left victims vulnerable to attack, with little recourse after the fact.