This scene on ancient pottery shows Hector’s last visit to his family before his fatal duel with Achilles/Jastrow
In“The rise of the campus brownshirt in the academic wasteland,” I looked at the apparently increasing tendency of universities to cancel commencement speakers whenever aggrieved students choose to complain. Surprisingly, many defend it, accusing critics of being moralists.
Talk about missing the point.
Colleges have taught a generation of students that they have a “right not to be offended.” This belief has inevitably morphed into an expectation among students that they will be confirmed in their beliefs, not challenged. It’s no wonder, then, that they apply increasingly strict purity tests to potential campus speakers.
Colleges could stem the tide of disinvitation season by encouraging intellectual curiosity, humility, the reservation of judgment, recognition that one does not know everything and the simple act of granting the benefit of the doubt. Not coincidentally, these are precisely the lessons universities should be teaching students.
This controversy may seem odd to students in the United States—where nearly 60% of the more than 400 colleges surveyed have speech codes that would probably not survive a rigorous First Amendment test. But, bear with me: At one time, a standard test of whether a young person would benefit from a university education was the ability to hear and respond to challenging material.
Yet, further to today’s university slowly morphing (on the arts side) into mere babysitting for physical adults, the latest fad is “trigger warnings,” warning students that personal traumas may cause them to be upset by the materials on the curriculum.
The curriculum adviser is supposed to be able to guess what upsets whom (no easy task in a world of lively minds but perhaps easier if everyone thinks herself a victim, according to preset categories, like the order of dinnerware at an elaborate dinner).
Here’s the fundamental problem: Art and literature is very often, if not mostly, about struggle and suffering. Take Homer’s portrayal of the hero Hector and his doomed family (3000 years ago, pictured above) or Shakespeare’s King Lear (partial film scene below):
Cordelia tries to rescue her beloved, aged father from abuse by her royal siblings, and is later captured and hanged by them in prison. A person who can bear the last scene where her father collapses and dies over her body – but experience no particular feeling – is at risk for sociopathy. A person who can’t bear it because of personal traumas may not be suited to the study of literature.
Literature suspends between these poles.
The arts are not egalitarian. They are there for you if you can benefit from them. Otherwise, better not. They fare poorly under well-meaning censorship, and you won’t benefit either.
The surest and easiest solution for the aggrieved student is to be upset by any challenge whatever. Perhaps that will birth a new category, “Pre-traumatic stress disorder.”
Fortunately, someone has started to talk back to all the well-meaning nannies, brownshirts, and pifflistes:
In a surprising move, a commencement speaker at Haverford College on Sunday used the celebratory occasion to deliver a sharp rebuke to students who had mounted a campaign against another speaker who had been scheduled to appear but withdrew amid the controversy.
William G. Bowen, former president of Princeton and a nationally respected higher education leader, called the student protestors’ approach both “immature” and “arrogant” and the subsequent withdrawal of Robert J. Birgeneau, former chancellor of the University of California Berkeley, a “defeat” for the Quaker college and its ideals.
They gave him a standing ovation, fine, but I am not going to shower them with undeserved praise for that fact. Where were they when the thugs in their midst got the previous speaker driven out? Why do they tolerate university administrations that are so spineless as to allow it?
It takes more to preserve a free society than simple consensus that thuggery is a bad thing. It must be supported by free votes and decisions.
Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.