As much as this show should’ve been canceled long ago, it’s time for another episode in the ongoing series Survivor: Millennial Snowflake Edition, in which a group of delicate children are dropped off at an exorbitantly expensive institution of higher learning and forced to fend for themselves against all the bad words and scary ideas. These things are always a bloodbath — a figurative one, of course, as opposed to a literal one, given that offenses aren’t the same thing as injuries — so if you’re especially fragile you might want to take a seat in whatever your safe space is and brace yourself for potential triggers. All strapped in, children? Here we go.
One of the many things that makes Columbia University special is the renowned Core Curriculum that sits at the center of its approach to learning. The Core is a series of classes that every undergraduate is required to complete, with the goal being the creation of not simply an educated adult but a truly knowledgable, well-rounded human being. Core classes go back a century and involve various fundamentals and humanities, all aimed at enlightening young minds with the wealth of human experience cultivated over its entire span of existence on this planet. You don’t go to Columbia if you’re not willing to take the Core. This should be a given. But then, so is the notion that you shouldn’t go to college — particularly an Ivy League college — if you’re not willing to be challenged and shaken out of your comfort zone in terms of ideas. Learning to confront and overcome arduous and sometimes uncomfortable situations is as much a part of becoming a functional member of society as knowing the basics.
Which brings us to an editorial currently running at Columbia’s student newspaper,The Spectator, that takes the Core and its proponents to task. Specifically, four members of the student Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board have gathered together to put their names to a request for professors to be less “insensitive” and to work harder to make the classroom a — wait for it — “safe space” when teaching potentially triggering material. Triggering material like, say, The Metamorphoses, the epic narrative by the Roman poet Ovid that spans 15 books and 250 myths, from the creation of the universe to the rise of Julius Ceasar. The Metamorphoses is an indisputable classic, having influenced writers like Chaucer, Dante and Shakespeare, but within the myths it chronicles there are several sequences of violence, sexual and otherwise. Zeus’s daughter Persephone, for example, is kidnapped and raped by Hades at one point.
You would assume that most liberal arts students could appreciate the era in which the story was written and thus compartmentalize any ugliness contained within for the greater good of being exposed to something so culturally significant. You would think, given that centuries of higher learning has gone back to Ovid and his work and Columbia especially has taught it for decades, that today’s students would be eager to be exposed to this kind of thing. You would, of course, be wrong. Because you wouldn’t, of course, be allowing for whatever the fuck was done to this generation by its parents that created kids who genuinely believe they are the center of the universe and as such should never be made uncomfortable ever.
And so, you get students suggesting that Ovid might simply too controversial to be taught because every single person in class can’t get through it without losing his or her mind.
During the week spent on Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” the class was instructed to read the myths of Persephone and Daphne, both of which include vivid depictions of rape and sexual assault. As a survivor of sexual assault, the student described being triggered while reading such detailed accounts of rape throughout the work. However, the student said her professor focused on the beauty of the language and the splendor of the imagery when lecturing on the text. As a result, the student completely disengaged from the class discussion as a means of self-preservation. She did not feel safe in the class. When she approached her professor after class, the student said she was essentially dismissed, and her concerns were ignored.
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.
There you have it. In addition to the argument that because one particular student just-couldn’t-deal something probably needs to be done about the entire course and the professor teaching it, you also have identity politics, as usual, rearing its big, stupid head. When that happens — when every niche’s every grievance demands immediate catering to — logic, reason and the greater good of all students goes out the window. You can’t create a course load that meets the demands and fragile sensibilities of every single individual student and you shouldn’t have to skip hugely important lessons simply because they don’t speak to the experience of every slice of the always-fragmenting identity politics pie.
But really at the center of this thing is the ongoing generational self-infantilization of college students. It’s kind of shocking to think that for years Ovid and classics like it were taught without incident. But now, suddenly, thanks to parental sheltering and an on-demand world that created kids who’ve never had to come up against a belief they don’t 100% agree with — kids who’ve curated every inch of their environments since childhood — professors have to pick their jaws up off the floor and put training wheels on their curriculum. All in the name of making sure no one in their class is ever made to feel “unsafe.”
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.
Change the Core Curriculum to fit our tastes and experiences rather than broadening our tastes and experiences with the Core Curriculum. That’s what this is saying — and it’s ridiculous. It violates the express intent of the Core to begin with.
In just the past few months, we’ve told you about the supposed need for safe spaces set aside on some American college campuses, where students can go when they want to be protected from language or ideas they believe are threatening to their emotional well-being. At Brown University, one of these spaces was “equipped with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma.” It was created by a member of the university’s Sexual Assault Task Force as a response to a public discussion about rape culture being held on campus. The mere knowledge that this speaking engagement existed required the establishment of a preschool playroom for 19-year-olds.
We also told you about how the National Union of Students Women’s Conference in the UK asked that its participants please refrain from applause during any part of the event. The reason? Those running the conference believed that sudden loud noises might be triggering for some. Instead, it was recommended that “jazz hands” be used to express approval — because 500 people suddenly and wildly thrusting their hands in front of them isn’t the least bit terrifying. This same conference also created a manifesto that demanded that everyone in London receive a “universal basic income,” because each person has value, and that gay white men immediately stop the appropriation of black female culture.
Then came the news that Ithaca College’s student government had passed a bill to create an “online system to report microaggressions.” So now kids can anonymously rat out their fellow students who occasionally say something legitimately ignorant or simply un-PC — all, I suppose, in an effort to create a campus that’s “problematic” issue-free.
I mentioned earlier that for years culturally vital literature like Ovid’s The Metamorphoses was taught without incident. That’s not entirely true. It was simply thought of as largely uncontroversial in places of higher learning, where even the most incendiary of classics is worthy of examination. There have always been those who wanted to censor Ovid — and Dante, and Shakespeare, and Salinger, and Nabokov, and Dickinson, and Orwell and on and on. They were those on the conservative end of the political spectrum, people and groups who believed that exposure to these authors and their ideas was dangerous. Liberal thinkers were always the ones standing up to that kind of censorship. Liberal thinkers were the ones who always stood by with a bucket of water, ready to risk their lives to put a stop to figurative and literal book burnings throughout history. Now look at what liberalism has become. Look at what this new generation is bringing us: liberalism that insists there are some ideas that are simply too offensive and which tries to protect its adherents from ever being confronted with art that might upset or challenge.
When I was young, I watched Tipper Gore and the PMRC, aligned with Christian pastors and advocates, fight to indirectly censor music they didn’t approve of — all in the name of supposedly “protecting the children.” I was one of those kids and I was infuriated by it. I gleefully spat at it, as did most of my friends, because we understood that no one can childproof the world nor should they. We were the defiant ones on the side of the artists. Now? Would there even be a need for the PMRC or would students simply censor allegedly offensive ideas themselves? Somehow, miraculously, young people are now the scolds. Liberals are now the ones trying to suppress language. Those who grew up with immense privilege — yes, privilege, regardless of their race or ethnicity — who have the luxury of fretting over mere ideas that offend them and who can somehow equate offense with actual injury want to see every interaction policed and sanitized to death.
The one real consolation here is that these kids have no idea what’s coming in a couple of years. They have no idea what the real world is like. And when they find out, they’re gonna be crushed like a fucking bug.
Chez Pazienza was the beating heart of The Daily Banter, sadly passing away on February 25, 2017. His voice remains ever present at the Banter, and his influence as powerful as ever.