Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Children of Columbia

Trigger warning:  The Abduction of Persephone by Hades

Certain grown-ups have been having fun for the last month over a dust-up at Columbia College.  The subject is an opinion piece in the campus daily.

The article was written by four student members of a Multicultural Advisory Board to the school's LiteratureHumanities course.  They claim freshmen are being traumatized by classical literature.  One quote:

     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. 

The piece goes on.  Other highlights:

     -- Ovid's 2,000-year-old myth "marginalizes student identities" and can be difficult for a "survivor, a person of color, or a student from a low-income background."

     -- "Students need to feel safe in the classroom, and that requires a learning environment that recognizes the multiplicity of their identities."

     -- The novels of Toni Morrison, a talented African American writer whose first book was published in 1970, "should be considered as founding texts of the Western canon."

My Context

I attended a Catholic girls' high school, the sort of place traditionally seen as a sheltered environment. In freshman English, we read The Merchant of Venice. 

We talked a lot about "identities" -- specifically, Shylock's character, Jews and anti-semitism in Shakespeare's England.  This was much more challenging than our grade school books had been, and good for that.  

At one point, our teacher asked which three crimes were discussed in the play.

"Murder," said one girl. 

"Robbery," said another. 

"And the other one?" asked the teacher.

We all sat silent.

"Well, you've nicely avoided the subject," the teacher said.  "It was rape."

Her message was clear:  Quit being a bunch of ninnies.

We were 13 years old, and nobody talked about "triggering" then.  

Clearly, times have changed.

Let's Talk

As for the distressed Columbia students, I have two questions.

1)  Why on earth did you go to Columbia College? 
     The school established a core curriculum almost 100 years ago, and it advises high school seniors of this requirement before they apply for admission.   
     Columbia freshmen take a year of LiteratureHumanities, moving from Ovid and his ilk through the classics of Western writing.  Sophomores spend a year in a Contemporary Civilization course that traces ideas of philosophy and morals from Plato to the current day. Each student also spends a year studying one of several major non-Western cultures.
     Columbia is not for everyone, and students who want to avoid uncomfortable ideas have other options.            
     -- Consider the conservative Christians who attend Bob Jones University.
     -- Self-styled progressives have many more alternatives.  There must be hundreds of U.S. colleges that do not require the study of Shakespeare for literature majors, exposure to the pre-20th century world for history majors, or comparative analyses of communist regimes and liberal democracies for students of political science.  
     Nobody is forced to suffer the trauma of a challenge to his or her "identity" by attending Columbia.

2)  What would happen if Columbia went all in and adopted its Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board's full point of view?
     Think of it.  The college could screen students before allowing them access to any potentially "triggering" classes.
      -- No male-written literature for female sexual abuse victims (like, say, the coed who came forward recently to report that she was the recipient of an unwanted hug more than a year ago).  
      -- No Western Civ for Islamic students, no George Washington or Thomas Jefferson for African Americans, all Hispanics shepherded into Latin American history.
      -- No painful exposure to current news of wars, ethnic rapes, genocides or tens of millions of refugees for anyone. 
      We know what would happen if Columbia treated its students like small children unable to handle life in the real world.  The students would rebel, and not quietly.
      So why are Columbia students asserting a presumed right to live in a perpetual, protected "safe" cocoon? 

A Humorous Note

Not all commenters on internet discussion sites are jerks or uneducated fools.  Some are good writers willing to spend the time to compose humorous perspectives.  I do like the one below.

I matriculated at Columbia
In every class
Triggered up and triggered down
I soon transferred into Brown

That color soothed by fear
But I lasted but a year
Two Cities and their Tale
Forced my sojourn
Unto Yale

Eli, Eli why has thou
Forsaken my furrowed brow?
Not a safe room, now or then
My trembling heart belonged at Penn

No Prince at Princeton
Just privilege and rape
Avert my eyes
From wraths of grape

Cornell is hell
As mouths of dart
These tender traps
Assault my heart

My car parked back
At Harvard Yard
Off damn blood
Unquoth the bard

Agress in micro
Quantum hate
With Ivy walls
And gilded gate

I am your future
Your past defended
And full time offended

The Classics burned 
To soot and ash
But I feel safe
With Ogden Nash

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