Columbia students are calling for more input in their required reading, since much of the literature included in the current syllabi contains violent sexual acts that some might consider upsetting. Ovid’s Metamorphoses has been canned. Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is on the chopping block. This is unfortunate, especially because the students—or, at least, some of those represented in an article by the Wall Street Journal—seem unclear on what exactly the problem is.
The article seems to conflate separate issues. The first is whether touchy subject matter should come equipped with "trigger warnings," with professors required to indicate verbally or via, I don't know, skywriting, that the story they're about to read might be disturbing.
“Some people would prefer not to be blindsided by reminders of traumatic experiences,” rising senior Charlotte Bullard Davies told the paper. Trigger warnings “can be a useful tool for someone who says, ‘I am going to read this, but…in a contextualized, thoughtful way.’” The paper adds that students are concerned with the university's "Eurocentric selection," and that it's "mandating works with overtones of racism and sexism and teaching them uncritically."
First off, the ostensible purpose of any college humanities course, much less one called "Masterpieces of Western Literature and Philosophy," is to help students examine literature through a critical lens, both in the context of the era in which it was written, and the world we live in now. If a required course is failing in that pursuit, Columbia is failing its students on a very, very basic level.
So what exactly, then, is the issue? Is it the "Eurocentric selection"—the preponderance of white male authors dominating the reading list? Or the content—the "overtones of racism and sexism"? In other words—is it the presence of racism and sexism, or the way those issues are handled by the author? Metamorphoses was replaced by a text from Toni Morrison, an odd choice if the point is to avoid grappling with disturbing events. (All books worth reading, it turns out, grapple with disturbing events.) It's unclear from the Journal which of Morrison's works were selected, but it feels safe to say that it, too, would make a good candidate for a trigger warning.
But implementing trigger warnings was never on the table, said Julie Crawford, chairwoman of Columbia College’s literature humanities department. “At no point did [we] consider trigger warnings as being something that could be productively or intellectually mandated, or made structural,” she said, adding that such warnings could threaten “intellectual freedom."
So the answer is—what? To pluck respected and important books, seemingly at random? In what way does that not threaten “intellectual freedom"? As student Micah J. Fleck put it: “If you are going to remove some texts, what kind of texts should you replace them with? It would still result in the same goal, which is intellectually stimulating us, and not shielding us from things that might be too scary,” he said. “I definitely am a fan of Toni Morrison’s, but it’s a matter of how well she fits in with the surrounding curriculum, and I hope whoever makes that decision is being intellectually honest.”
The answer is not to pull controversial or disturbing works from Columbia's list of required reading, nor is it to tack on some facile warning about "disturbing content." The answer is to examine what makes the content controversial and disturbing in the first place, to consider where the author it coming from, and where the characters are coming from, and to parse why they make us feel the way they do.
Isn't that why we read Lolita? Isn't that why we read...anything? If we're not doing that, then what is the point?