Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm


#1

NY Times:

Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — Should students about to read “The Great Gatsby” be forewarned about “a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence,” as one Rutgers student proposed? Would any book that addresses racism — like “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” or “Things Fall Apart” — have to be preceded by a note of caution? Do sexual images from Greek mythology need to come with a viewer-beware label?Colleges across the country this spring have been wrestling with student requests for what are known as “trigger warnings,” explicit alerts that the material they are about to read or see in a classroom might upset them or, as some students assert, cause symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in victims of rape or in war veterans.

The warnings, which have their ideological roots in feminist thought, have gained the most traction at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where the student government formally called for them. But there have been similar requests from students at Oberlin College, Rutgers University, the University of Michigan, George Washington University and other schools.

The debate has left many academics fuming, saying that professors should be trusted to use common sense and that being provocative is part of their mandate. Trigger warnings, they say, suggest a certain fragility of mind that higher learning is meant to challenge, not embrace. The warnings have been widely debated in intellectual circles and largely criticized in opinion magazines, newspaper editorials and academic email lists.

Huh?
Isn’t literature supposed to be challenging? And shouldn’t these students have already read Huckleberry Finn in high school?


#2

Yikes. Literature major here, Great Books type, very sensitive subject for me. (as in why I left academics and, basically lost, landed in an alien job field where I survive albeit paralyzed by boredom :slight_smile: ) I think it was Walter Kaufmann who said that American college students couldn’t take a quarter of Nietszche (properly understood, not left or righticized). They would have a nervous breakdown. So true. We’re going to get so sensitive and dysfunctional life itself will be an intolerable affront.


#3

I think every entering university Freshman should be given “trigger warnings” that exposure to the ideological mantras of current educational elites could lead to loss of common sense.


#4

As a mother, I tend to cringe at some of what’s offered nowadays, but someone who actually knows something about literature pointed out that classical (old) literature, even the Bibke, has these situations (sans the graphic descriptions!). In the classical works, these situations are depicted as leading to a bad end (due to normal human nature), and so books whch allude to people doing bad things and experiencing the natural (bad) consequences should be considered acceptable for high school and college students.

So, that’s kinda understandable to me. However, I am still against stories which glorify sin and which show fantasy (not-bad) consequences.

It’s like the difference between Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Mermaid, where she disobeyed her father and ended up having to die in consequences, and the Disney version in which she ended up getting what she wanted in the end, along with her father’s approval (!).

If the importance of literature is to examine the human experience, then it seems to me that some bad things have to happen in the books.

I woudl still be upset if i were paying for a lit course of 50 Shades of Grey or the like, and certainly there are stories which can be used for students which are not overly graphic in their descriptions of evil.


#5

And a warning when they graduate that they have lived in a fantasy world for four years and the real world awaits them.


#6

There are many “classic” books that have to get skipped over, due to sheer volume. In my experience, I’ve been going back and reading several books that I never got to in middle school/high school/college, generally ones that make people say “huh, how did you never have to read that??” (Catch-22, Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird… just to name a few.) I also had several times where we were able to pick a book off of a list of options. There’s always going to be some books that slip through the cracks, even for kids taking advanced classes and a lot of literature courses even.

As for the next point in this post, I think there’s a lack of understanding as to what a major trigger can do to someone with PTSD. I’ve witnessed close friends deal with after effects of abuse or other traumatic events, and the flashbacks they sometimes experienced were at times overwhelming - to the point they were so caught up in the memory that was triggered, that they were no longer aware of the current world around them, couldn’t hear their friends asking if they were okay. I don’t have personal experience, but I have seen enough to understand that it can certainly be more significant than just someone being mildly upset for a few moments.

I don’t necessarily know that warnings for all potentially triggering content is the best answer, but people who have gone through something horrible enough to leave them with PTSD, and who are willing to come forward and ask for help don’t deserve to be mocked, ridiculed, or belittled.


#7

I’ve always wondered what the standard is for declaring a work of literature to be a classic. Apparently the bar is pretty low these days. Take Lord of The Flies for instance. It, like many other books, is a classic because the State says it is; not because it is a profoundly good work of literature. It was never popular among the general public and so few people bought it that it went out of print within a year of its initial publication. Uncle Sam stepped in a decade later to resurrect it from the grave, made it required reading and, voila, insta-classic. I read that book, years ago, because the State said I had to. I didn’t find it interesting, enlightening, or challenging; I thought, like the millions of others when this book premiered 60 years ago, that it was stupid. Warning labels on books is almost as bad an idea as letting some faceless bureaucrat decide which books qualify as a classic work of literature.


#8

m.nationalreview.com/corner/378319/youre-all-worthless-and-weak-kevin-d-williamson


#9

I don’t see this as students wanting to get out of reading challenging material, or students not wanting to read things that could upset them, or students not wanting to read about things that exist in “the real world”, or students wanting to stay in a protective bubble.

We could be interpreting the article differently, but I see this as students with specific backgrounds - veterans who have seen horrible things, victims of rape, victims of sexual abuse, victims of physical abuse, children who grew up in war-torn countries, people with traumatic things in their past - asking for help. Not even necessarily an excuse to not read the books, but maybe just a heads up about what’s coming.

Bailey Loverin, a sophomore at Santa Barbara, said the idea for campuswide trigger warnings came to her in February after a professor showed a graphic film depicting rape. She said that she herself had been a victim of sexual abuse, and that although she had not felt threatened by the film, she had approached the professor to suggest that students should have been warned.

Ms. Loverin draws a distinction between alerting students to material that might truly tap into memories of trauma — such as war and torture, since many students at Santa Barbara are veterans — and slapping warning labels on famous literary works, as other advocates of trigger warnings have proposed.

“We’re not talking about someone turning away from something they don’t want to see,” Ms. Loverin said in a recent interview. “People suddenly feel a very real threat to their safety — even if it is perceived. They are stuck in a classroom where they can’t get out, or if they do try to leave, it is suddenly going to be very public.”

I do think that a student dealing with specific traumatic experiences should go to their professor and have a discussion about the semester and how their past may have an impact during the semester/discuss whether there may be triggers that would affect them, and that is probably the best course of action, rather than creating a universal guide to things. However, a website that lists common books and what triggers they contain could also be a helpful resource - even just being aware that a book contains something potentially upsetting is a good start for many, but working with a professor to discuss alternate options (when possible/necessary/realistic) might be needed on an individual basis as well.

I don’t think that war veterans or people who have been attacked or abused deserve to be called weak or too sensitive for being affected by reading graphic details that bring back painful and terrifying memories without warning.


#10

Oh please,just gag me with a spoon. I can understand if someone was abused as a child and saw a mom hit and yell at her kids in public or that sort of thing and it triggers a bad PTSD episode,or something in the real world sets one off,but the world isn’t sweetness and light. Do these people not watch the news or read it on line?
Are these students that self absorb they can’t give other human beings another thought? Have these students ever thought of the fact that maybe the writer is telling in some way an event that happend maybe to him ,her or a loved one?
My father was a vetran of three wars,Ww2,Korea and Viet Nam.
There were of course things he experienced during WW2 that he didn’t talk about .
But yet he would sometimes watch programs like for example about the Battle of Monte Casino.He was there and helped bomb the famous abbey. He watched other military programs and even read military books at times. Yet i know he hated when our neighbor would barbecue.Why,because the smell of burning fat on the coals reminded him of men burning to death during the war.
And even when he said it,he was in the real world,consius of everything going on around him.
Only time I know he ever had a flash back was when he had a partial lumbectamy at Wilford Hall at Lackland. I was in highschool then.Momma went to visit him in the hospital and the drainage tube was clogging,needed tobe cleaned.He started going out of his head and was yelling in german and trying to shoot these soldiers in his head. Momma grabbed ahold of some medic and said if this wasn’t taken care ofshe was going straight to General So and So.Needless to say they sprang into action and managed to fix him up . Daddy did come out of it, and thanked them for helping him. That’s the only time it ever happend.

Everyone has experienced some sort of upset or trama in their lives at one time or another.But We can’t stop living just because of it.We have to pick ourselves up and go on for our wives,husbands, and children,or someone else we love.By not giving in we are showing we are stronger than what happend to us.


#11

I don’t see how suffering PTSD and asking for help makes someone self absorbed.

My father was a vetran of three wars,Ww2,Korea and Viet Nam.
There were of course things he experienced during WW2 that he didn’t talk about .
But yet he would sometimes watch programs like for example about the Battle of Monte Casino.He was there and helped bomb the famous abbey. He watched other military programs and even read military books at times. Yet i know he hated when our neighbor would barbecue.Why,because the smell of burning fat on the coals reminded him of men burning to death during the war.
And even when he said it,he was in the real world,consius of everything going on around him.
Only time I know he ever had a flash back was when he had a partial lumbectamy at Wilford Hall at Lackland. I was in highschool then.Momma went to visit him in the hospital and the drainage tube was clogging,needed tobe cleaned.He started going out of his head and was yelling in german and trying to shoot these soldiers in his head. Momma grabbed ahold of some medic and said if this wasn’t taken care ofshe was going straight to General So and So.Needless to say they sprang into action and managed to fix him up . Daddy did come out of it, and thanked them for helping him. That’s the only time it ever happend.

I am grateful for your father’s sacrifice, and am sorry for any hardships he had due to his time serving, but in my non-expert opinion, most of what you have described doesn’t sound like post traumatic stress disorder. My grandparents and uncle were also involved in the military, and I was taught from a young age that there were some things that we didn’t talk about, and some things we didn’t do (such as sneaking up on someone while they are sleeping to try to surprise them.) It sounds like the smell of the bbq and probably other instances including talking about his time serving in the military brought up scary and painful memories for him, but that is not what PTSD is, and that’s not what I have been mentioning in previous posts. Or I could be completely wrong and maybe it is PTSD, but I think it’s also important to remember that everyone is different and has different tolerances and experiences things differently.

The people I know who have been diagnosed with it actually feel as if they are back in the situation - back on the battle ground or in the location where they were abused - and the threat is very real to them. I had one friend try to explain it that while he KNEW he was sitting at a table or in a classroom in some part of his brain, the part that “took over” and felt more real to him was the memory and the fear that he had originally experienced during the traumatic event. Something more realistic and harder to come out of than what normally happens during a daydream or remembering something from your past, and much more vivid and fear inducing.

Here’s a link with more information:
ptsd.va.gov/public/PTSD-overview/basics/symptoms_of_ptsd.asp

Everyone has experienced some sort of upset or trama in their lives at one time or another.But We can’t stop living just because of it.We have to pick ourselves up and go on for our wives,husbands, and children,or someone else we love.By not giving in we are showing we are stronger than what happend to us.

Everyone has gone through something horrible, and even if you haven’t, many books and films you encounter throughout an education will be disturbing in one way or another. I completely agree with you. I’m also not agreeing with those in the original article who think that warnings should be given out on all literary items or potentially disturbing films beforehand. As I said earlier, I think if someone is struggling with PTSD, and knows that there are potentially serious triggers for them, they should speak with a teacher or professor at the beginning of the year/semester and figure out a personal solution (because it will be different for every individual case). My posting here wasn’t arguing with that fact, I was just disturbed by the lack of understanding of how severe PTSD can be, and a few posts that seem to generalize an entire generation as being too sensitive and afraid of a real challenge. I was mostly disappointed at the lack of empathy and compassion and saddened to see what I interpreted as mocking.

Sorry for all the long posts about this - I didn’t realize how strongly I felt about this until I started writing, and I want to be as clear as I can be to try to prevent misunderstandings.


#12

I love this comment…! :thumbsup:

Couldn’t have said it better myself… :slight_smile:


#13

I believe that Lord of the Flies is a great book for HS students. It’s themes aren’t too complex and the moral questions can be easily grasped by the youth.

Plus when paired with Heart of Darkness plays out the issues of the descent into savagery which is a nice theme for one year of HS English class.


#14

One of the marks of a literary work that stands the test of time is that it speaks of a great deal more than what’s on the surface of the work. It is exactly the proper purpose of a literature class to expose students to works that have rightly stood the test of time and challenge them to get well below the surface.

Putting “warnings” on books is exactly focusing on their most superficial aspect, and without good reason to do it. Does anybody really think some student reading “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is going to come away thinking it’s a good idea to use the “N” word like the characters in the book do? That’s not college level thinking, or even school thinking of any sort. It would be perhaps the reaction of someone who probably doesn’t read books anyway.

It’s very easy, in works like “Huckleberry Finn” to focus on the race and slavery issues to the exclusion of Twain’s deeper messages about the human condition in a much more profound way. Issuing “warnings” about superficial things encourages superficial reading and understanding.


#15

I would have thought Middle School or Jr High, but I do consider it a worthwhile read for young people.


#16

I always found the objections to Huckleberry Finn to be absurd. He clearly states at the end that he chooses to free Jim even if it means he’s going to go to hell. I can’t imagine a stronger stance against racism than that. Maybe people never make it to the end.


#17

True enough.

But even racism or slavery isn’t the point of it. Twain’s point there is actually a snippet of a view of natural law; the moral law that’s written on every human heart notwithstanding it may fly in the face of human conventions or directives; even those in which one, at some level, believes.

I’m sure you realize that too. I’m just saying it here to apply my previous point to this particular example.


#18

Especially when one reads Twains comments in the forward:

Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”:slight_smile:


#19

Acutally I didn’t realize that. It’s probably about time to re-read it. The last time I read it was the late 90’s, prior to that the late 80’s. It was interesting reading it as a teen, then as a young adult (early 20’s). I got a lot more out of it the second time. I’d imagine I’d get even more out of it as an adult in my ealy 40’s.


#20

Lord of the Flies is normally taught in the 9th. grade. As an adjunct to Heart of Darkness it is especially suited to Freshman.

Some teachers choose to show kids the film Apocalypse Now as another work in this group looking at the theme of civility and savagery.


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