Kathleen Parker: Literature (gasp) being committed

May 27, 2014 

Just when you thought American higher learning couldn't get any more ridiculous, along come demands for warning labels on provocative works of literature.

One never knows when a sentence, phrase or word might trigger some buried memory or traumatic experience. Life is a veritable assault on the excessively sensitive, but somehow most of us muddle through. (BEG ITAL)C'est la vie(END ITAL), after all.

But literature, apparently, is fair game for those tortured souls who fear that some -ism or another might leap from a page, causing what exactly? A moment of discomfort? An opportunity to sort through one's emotional attic? Or, heavens, exposure to an involuntary insight?

Several schools (including Oberlin College, Rutgers University, George Washington University and the University of Michigan) are toiling with these very questions as students have begun requesting "trigger warnings" on books and syllabuses.

"(BEG ITAL)Warning: This book includes a rape scene(END ITAL)," for example, would warn rape victims lest they be traumatized by the contents.

Mightn't students Google a book in advance of reading if they're so fearful of a psychological crisis? One is surprised that student organizers at these schools would use such a loaded word as "trigger," given its obvious association with guns.

Without making light of anyone's ethnicity, race or trauma, especially rape or stress disorder suffered by veterans (another specific group of concern), such precautions are misplaced in an institution of higher learning where one is expected to be intellectually challenged and where one's psychological challenges are expected to be managed elsewhere.

There are, besides, other ways to inform oneself about a course or literary assignment that might be problematic for whatever reason. Then again, if reading "The Great Gatsby" causes one undue angst owing to its abuse, classism, sexism and whatever-ism, then one might consider that college is not the right place at the right time.

Moreover, part of literary criticism is understanding the historical context of a given work. Thus, when the egregiously offensive N-word appears in the "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," is it too much to ask that readers reflect upon the word's usage when Mark Twain wrote the book?

Within that understanding is a world of learning, from the history of race to the evolution of language. Instead, we are enslaved to "responsible pedagogical practice," as one sympathetic faculty member put it. Thus, a draft guide at Oberlin College suggests flagging anything that could "disrupt a student's learning" or "cause trauma":

"Be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism [transgender discrimination], ableism and other issues of privilege and oppression. Realize that all forms of violence are traumatic, and that your students have lives before and outside your classroom, experiences you may not expect or understand."

I don't know about you but I'm presently suffering acute trauma caused by being trapped in a world full of (you say it, not me). What is the -ism that refers to discrimination against relatively sane people who can read "The Merchant of Venice" without a therapist on speed dial? Normalism? But then, this would be offensive to people who are …

The mind left free to wander happens upon a vacant building that used to house thousands of volumes. Now a museum, it was once called a library. Which is to say, a list of books that might be offensive to someone, or cause one to ponder the universe beyond one's personal experience, would be so long as to make libraries obsolete. Most if not all of Shakespeare and the Greek tragedies would require so many labels they'd look like a Prius in Portland.

Lest I leave anyone unoffended, studying at the adult level, that is, in an institution of higher learning, isn't supposed to make one feel good -- or necessarily bad. It is to make one feel challenged, excited by new ideas, elevated by fresh insights, broadened by others' perspectives.

Obviously, one should be sensitive but also sensible. We also might expect that professors, guided by their own educations, common sense and goodwill, might mention the potential to find some words or expressions disturbing. But requiring labels on books is the busywork of smallish minds -- yet another numbing example of political correctness run amok and the infantilizing of education in the service of overreaching sensitivity.

Kathleen Parker, kathleenparker@washpost.com.

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