By Rabbi Steven Pruzansky
The usually insightful Peggy Noonan (WSJ) broached an issue several weeks ago that brought back memories of my college years. It related to an article published by four aggrieved students in the Spectator, Columbia’s student newspaper, about their sensitivities and concerns that, they claim, are being trampled by some faculty members and elements of the curriculum. What happened?
In the mandatory Humanities Literature course, some of the selections are provocative even if they are not meant to be. The most offensive passage, the writers found, was in Ovid’s Metamorphoses which contained “triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities in the classroom.” To wit: passages that vividly depict sexual assault in a way that engendered (“triggered” is the phrase de jure) unpleasant reactions in a student who had unfortunately been the victim of such an assault. To add insult to injury, the teacher insensitively focused on “the beauty of the language and the splendor of the imagery” and did not take care to tiptoe around the feelings of this or any other student. The student “did not feel safe” and “disengaged from classroom discussion as a means of self-preservation.”
We should cut her some slack given her troubling experiences but sometimes one simply has to remain silent and even endure some discomfort. For where does it end? Should every student be pre-screened for disquieting images or incidents in the past that might prove vexatious or irksome when raised in an educational setting?
Perhaps Jews should be exempt from reading the “Merchant of Venice,” pacifists from reading the “Red Badge of Courage,” blacks from “Huckleberry Finn” and vegans from “The Old Man and the Sea” and “Moby Dick.” Or perhaps we should stop reading altogether because the only books that don’t challenge our minds are those that bore us to tears.
Well, the world has certainly changed. When I was a student at Columbia (mercifully, we didn’t read Ovid, who is only being spared prosecution and incarceration because of his untimely demise 1998 years ago), I also had to take Hum Lit and, as I now recall it (having been triggered), the trauma is just being felt. At one time, I too was vexed and irked, and didn’t even realize I was traumatized until now. Maybe that explains everything.
Our Hum Lit class studied the Bible as part of the curriculum, and the professor made it absolutely clear that the Bible was just another work of literature, the product of human hands r”l, and would be studied accordingly. Fresh from Yeshiva, I protested loudly, and rather than use the assigned New Oxford Bible translation, which I soon realized was flawed and inaccurate in several places, I daily brought in my “Mikraot Gedolot.” Every incorrect translation I corrected, every “contradictory” passage I explained as the Sages did, and every question he had on the text I swatted away. He got more miserable by the day, often cutting me off and not letting me speak.
And then one day he asked me to see him after class, and I did. My professor – interestingly enough – had attended yeshiva in his youth and so was familiar enough with the Hebrew original to know that I was right but had lapsed years earlier in his observance and Jewish commitment. He did not appreciate my theologizing the Bible, as I did not appreciate his secularizing it.
At our meeting, he shared his concerns. He didn’t mind the discussions as much as he did my assumption that the Bible was the Word of G-d and had to be analyzed with respect, humility and sensitivity. That assumption had no place or even standing in a secular university, and then he popped the question: “Why are you here? You belong in yeshiva!”
At the time, I was too young and innocent to realize the great offense that I should have taken and the trauma inflicted upon me. Imagine – a professor telling a student that his views are so unwelcome he should leave and find another place to study! Today, a professor who suggested that would be tarred and feathered, ridiculed and scorned, lambasted and fired after he took the required sensitivity training courses so that he should be able to re-enter society and not be forever banished to the wilderness.
We weren’t so fragile then, apparently, and so I simply responded that he is right – I dobelong in Yeshiva – but, nonetheless, if I have some expertise in one of the books in the curriculum, and in its original language, I should be allowed to share it, and especially since the class seemed very interested in what I had to say (or at least – it was the 1970s – enjoyed seeing any professor successfully refuted by a student). I actually appreciated the dialogue, his sentiments, our exchanges and the rest of the semester. He even directed me – and only me – to answer a finals essay comparing something from the Bible to another work of literature (the rest of the class had a choice of essays) and I simply refused, noting on my exam that on religious principle I do not compare G-d’s word to that of human beings.
The writers herein went on protest the use of various tracts in the “Western” canon, “narratives of exclusion and oppression [that] can be difficult to read as a survivor, a person of color, or a student from a low-income background.” (There goes “The Great Gatsby.”) They also protested a classmate who urged the teacher not to assign Toni Morrison books because they had been studied already in high school; such a request was “insensitive.” And they found that, too often, the great works of literature traumatized some students and silenced others.
Memo to writers: get over yourselves and grow up. Part of maturity is learning how to deal with all types of people from all types of backgrounds, even with people who are so clueless and insensitive that they would try to impose blasphemous views on a naïve teenager fresh from years of learning Torah. The writers – and their sympathizers, which might constitute a majority of young people today – seem to feel that they have a constitutional right not to be offended, and that if they ever are offended, the fault lies with the offenders who must be officially silenced, sometimes (if they are fellow students) expelled, sometimes (if they are professors) dismissed, and always dispatched for sensitivity training that is right out of Mao’s Little Red Book.
Imagine, just imagine, if rather than rebuked and put in their place, a professor had said to them: “Why are you here? You belong in another school. Here we study the classics, here we challenge minds, here we confront our premises, here we learn to hold our emotions in check and engage our minds.” Yeah, right.
Naturally, the University has already caved. The curricula will be adjusted, the faculty is on notice that “trigger warnings” must be issued in case a problematic passage is assigned for reading or discussed in class, and everyone is on notice to walk on eggshells around the highly sensitive, i.e., anyone who wants to bully others into silence. What a shame that is – an insult to the university (any university), to their fellow students and to these students themselves who are grotesquely ill-prepared to enter the real world having lived in a politically correct cocoon their entire lives.
But maybe they are right after all. With the intimidators prevailing, traditional values weakening and free expression stifled, these delicate flowers have found a rapt and receptive audience. Civil society is already under siege. Few have the stomach to fight back against censorship and risk being branded racists, haters, etc. Tolerance is a one-way street. If this is the new normal, then pity higher education.
One thing is true: unprepared as they are for the real world – its frustrations, disappointments, imperfections and, yes, offenses – the writers are unlikely to have any impact beyond the college campus. Except, that is, for the restrictions they impose on their fellow students who actually attend college to learn things they did not know rather than have the tired clichés and biases of their adolescent minds validated. And that seems to be a waste of time and money.
Perhaps, as my professor suggested to me so many years ago, it would be best if they just went elsewhere. And talked only to themselves – after screening any potential conversations for “triggers” that will shatter their cozy world.