Recently, a blog reader emailed an article from the Wall Street Journal that got my juices flowing. (Click) Columnist Peggy Noonan was taking some Columbia University students to task for their editorial in the college newspaper, Spectator. (Click)
In sum, the article was a response to a student’s concern that she was required to read Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” Book V, which describes the rape of Proserpina. An ancillary assignment included reading the myths of Persephone and Daphne which also gave accounts of sexual assault. The student in question spoke to her instructor because she’d been a rape victim and the literature “triggered” memories of the event. According to her, the teacher was dismissive of her complaint and that dismissal ”triggered” an editorial in the Spectator, written by members of the Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board.
Noonan’s response to the young people who wrote the piece was to remind them that the freedom they enjoyed in an academic setting didn’t assure them they would always feel safe or comfortable. Freedom very often means the opposite: to feel challenged. If literature were to be weighed against a “feel good” standard, she insisted , little art would remain. In the end, she accused the editorial writers of being “frail and sensitive little bullies” who, in holding safety as their highest regard, showed an unrealistic attitude toward life, one worthy of some serious therapy.
Noonan’s essay is sharp, witty and devastating. Yet it smacks too much like a member of an older generation telling a younger one to shape up. “Stop whining that the light bulb has gone out. In my day we read by candlelight.” Could it be that while their comments struck Noonan as being overbroad, what these young people were pointing to was a kinder, gentler world? What is it, after all, that they demanded? They wished for instructors to be trained “with effective strategies to engage with potential conflicts and confrontations in the classroom, whether they are between students or in response to the material itself.” The words are a mouthful, which doesn’t say much for the quality of the English instruction they are receiving, but I can’t quarrel with the intent.
Noonan has a point… to a point. The world isn’t likely to cater to overly refined sensibilities, though in the case of the rape victim, I would never raise that as an accusation. Instead, I’d ask what’s the purpose of a university if not to provide a safe place for threatening ideas and experiences to be explored? Had I been the teacher to whom the traumatized young woman had spoken, I would have seized upon the opportunity to reframe the class discussion. I would have gone beyond Ovid’s poetic language and asked why, down through the ages, rape has been institutionalized in societies not only as art, but as appropriate in a marriage and as a weapon of war. Does draping violence in beautiful language blind us to its horrors? Do we then forget how it makes a women feel when she becomes a victim? What message does it send to men about women? What does such art say about the period from which it arises? These are questions worthy of an academic setting.
I tend to think the young woman who voiced her objection was brave, and not a “snowflake.” By exposing her vulnerability, she gave her teacher an opportunity to submit a literary classic to contemporary scrutiny where it must continue to resonate or fail the test of being a classic. What a pity her instructor was blind to the opportunity.