Sunday, May 25, 2014

Academic Matters

Students have become arrogant of late. I noticed that during my last years of professorship, and I find it confirmed by what I hear and read these days. When I say that in my days we were not like that, I am not being a laudator temporis acti—a bit of Latin that shouldn’t stump anyone, except perhaps some of today’s students.

The problem has nothing to do with human nature, only with the temper of the times. My student days were before political correctness, before affirmative action, before not being allowed to call someone stupid, least of all if he or she actually was. It was certainly before a teacher was not supposed (allowed?) to flunk anyone. The whole purpose of education has changed: then it was about learning; now it is about getting a degree as a means to a better job and more money.

To be sure, I was a student at Harvard, whereas I was a teacher at much less distinguished schools, although for all I know, even Harvard may no longer be Harvard. Still, the country was respectful of the kind of knowledge a decent liberal arts program bestowed on you. This is no longer the case. On the day I write this (May 19), I was watching Jeopardy! with one young woman a multiple six-figure winner, and two other contestants who too were on the ball.                                                                    

As usual, they did well enough in various areas, but were unimpressive in literature. They did not know what Conrad novel featured a Jim whom respectful natives deemed a lord. Nor did they know the name of the evil hypnotist who enslaved a lovely, innocent young woman. In my day, even people who had not read Trilby knew what was meant by a Svengali.

But back to current students. In today’s Times, an article appears under the headline “Warning: The Literary Canon Could make Students Squirm.” (This, by the way, was not the case of a subliterate headline, such as we got from the Times of May 10, which began: “Obama, Aggravated by Gridlock” etc.) Now we got responsible reportage about what was happening on a good many campuses, concentrating on the University of California, Santa Barbara and Oberlin College, but with references also to Rutgers University, the University of Michigan, George Washington University and other schools where there were student requests for what are known as trigger warnings.

The term, like other unfortunate things, originated on the Internet, specifically on feminist blogs and subsequent forums. But I am concerned with its academic life and what it tells us about student demands and certain professors’ and administrators’ taking them seriously, in some cases even deferring to them.

What it comes down to is the idea that students in certain literature and film courses should be forewarned  about disturbing elements that could upset the poor darlings if they were unprepared for them. Which means, in effect, that the element of surprise and wonder should be denied some great works of literature and cinema, lest they cause moments of discomfiture.

Who are these students anyway? Are they four-year-olds who need to be warned by their nannies about the dangers of crossing a street? Must they, as it were, be taken by the hand and led to safety? “Careful about oncoming cars.” “Careful about painful deaths or a horrid rape in this novel, which may upset you.”

But reading or seeing a great work should precisely put you at the creator’s mercy—how else would you learn from him or her? If authors want to surprise you, starkly and startlingly, they should be allowed to do so without warning. Any student who needs that kind of help has something seriously wrong with him, and may need psychological assistance; the work of art needs no such help.

I am especially struck by the attitude of Bailey Loverin, who in her picture looks perfectly normal. A sophomore at Santa Barbara, she said “the idea came to her . . .  after a professor showed a graphic film depicting rape. She said that she herself had been the 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.”

What makes her reaction reprehensible? First of all, the arrogance of assuming such superiority to other students. If she, despite good reason, wasn’t upset by the film, maybe there wasn’t anything in it that could upset any normal person, even given past incidents. So why complain to the professor, unless perhaps to show off.

The real issue here is the nature of this being upset. Does it mean anything more than feeling intensely sorry for the victim, although it was only a movie or a novel? Such empathy is by no means amiss. It may prove, if anything, therapeutic. If it produces anything more drastic than that, look not to mollycoddling but to therapy.

A student who has a violent reaction strikes me as sick. Moreover, I don’t see how being warned can make much a difference. A predicted hurt is ultimately just as hurtful as an unpredicted one. Tell me I am about to get a beating and forthwith the beating becomes painless? And what way is there to prepare after such a  warning? With stringent physical exercise? With a specially invigorating meal? With clutching a pet dog or cat you brought along to the screening? With taking some sort of anti-anxiety medication? In the case of a book, must you skip pages 154 to 163? Or, safest of all, not read such a dangerous book as “The Great Gatsby” or “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” cited in the article as trauma-inducing.

At Oberlin College, a draft guide was circulated “asking professors to put trigger warning in their syllabuses” concerning the following, which “might cause trauma.” They are: racism, classism. heterosexism, cissexism, ableism and “other issues of privilege and oppression.” Because even the adult reader might need some warning, the Times explained cissexism as “anything that would suggest the inferiority of anyone who is transgender [sic[ This neologism, may need explication. But anyone can figure out the equally clumsy “ableism.”

I particularly savor the horror of “classism.” Visualize a movie in which a glamorous hostess refuses to invite her hairdresser to a party, and then imagine the convulsions and nausea afflicting the more sensitive spectators.

What arrogance—or stupidity—from these Oberlin petitioners. If professors put such a warning in the course catalogue, there would be no shortage of students avoiding that course altogether to their eventual impoverishment. After a while, the school would drop such a course, to the disadvantage of all potential students.

But whereas student benightedness may come as no surprise, faculty pusillanimity does. TheTimes article quotes Meredith Raimondo, Oberlin’s associate dean of  the College of Arts and Sciences, as declaring that “providing students with warnings would simply be responsible pedagogical practice.’” She explains that “We have students coming to us with serious issues, and we need to deal with that respectfully and seriously.”

Allow me an obiter dictum on the use of “issues.” People nowadays no longer have problems or difficulties, they have ”issues.” I myself have problems with this use of “issues,” unless I am mishearing, and what is said “is shoes.” Too tight, too high-heeled, too expensive. But back to the students.

If it were up to me, it would be compulsory to take courses that might upset them. We may have reached the point where students can be taught only by shock treatment. Profoundly upset students would be immediately recognizable as needful of psychological help, which could accordingly be administered. Such trigger warning to the faculty and administration might prevent later, more serious student breakdowns.

But if the students are merely displaying fake altruism as a form of self-importance, (like, I suspect, Bailey Loverin), let them not benefit from someone like Associate Dean Raimondo, who says, “I quite object to the argument of ‘Kids today need to toughen up.’ That absolutely misses the reality that we’re dealing with.” I share the objection. Kids, for the most part, are tough enough. It’s the professors and administrators who need toughening.


  1. Christopher Plummer as Professor Nabokov.

  2. Yes, put a warning label on Iris Murdoch's novel 'The Black Prince' b/c of the scene in which a young woman jumps out of a moving car. A great shocking moment!

  3. The world is going to hell, Mr. Simon. You and I were lucky enough to have seen the best it had to offer before its demise twenty or so years ago.