Every once in a while, there’s a topic in the news that has everyone talking, and last Sunday, May 18, was a case in point. Over the past few days, many people have approached me and asked what I thought about a particular article, linked here, in The New York Times; I could only shake my head. Jennifer Medina’s article, “Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm,” addresses the recent discussion of whether colleges should issue warnings or alerts before students read certain pieces of literature, so they know whether to proceed and read that book or take that course. At colleges across the country, students are asking administrators and professors to post “trigger warnings” so that students can either avoid the works altogether or read them forewarned.
As an educator, and also as the son of an attorney who argued on behalf of several clients whose literary works were threatened with censorship, I recoiled. Being an avid reader, I am fully aware that there are certain pieces of literature that are provocative. I can recall the many times that something I read hit a raw nerve and engendered a feeling of resentment or anger.
We all know there are books that can provoke or enrage other people whether they have read them or not. One need only recall the fury around Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and the fatwa that was issued against him; yet there are other less violent forms of censorship that occur all too regularly. This is why we recognize Banned Books Week, “the national book community's annual celebration of the freedom to read.” Early in my teaching career, I was the target of a group of “concerned citizens” who felt that the books I assigned in class were inappropriate for adolescents to read. They banded together to try and force my school to make me stop teaching what they referred to as, “that book about a mouse.” The book was, of course, John Steinbeck’s classic, Of Mice and Men. As a relatively young teacher, this was a frightening moment in my early career; fortunately, my head of school at that time would not be cowed, and she assured me that she fully supported my curriculum.
It was with this background in mind that I found myself disconcerted on many levels as I read the article. I recalled the famous line by science fiction writer Ray Bradbury: “You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” As I tell our seniors year after year, college is a time to question what we do and what we know. These are the years to scrutinize our cherished beliefs and engage in a rigorous process of self-analysis. We can only go through this process if we’re willing to open ourselves to new authors who force us to question what we thought we knew.
While I understand that certain texts can be traumatic for people with specific histories, to engage in the act of warning college students away from particular works, for fear of finding them objectionable, ignores one of the major elements of a liberal arts education: grappling with works with which one disagrees in order to develop personal beliefs in opposition to or in agreement with other thinkers. This also fosters an ability to create a cogent argument. We do our students no favors, and we can actually do them harm, when we attempt to protect them from works they may find offensive. In addition, encouraging students to avoid concepts or ideas they find disagreeable stunts their process of self-actualization. In the process of forewarning, we prevent young men and women from realizing their potential as they may cease to grow intellectually and personally. As Medina writes, “ ‘Any kind of blanket trigger policy is inimical to academic freedom,’ said Lisa Hajjar, a sociology professor at the university here [University of California, Santa Barbara], who often uses graphic depictions of torture in her courses about war. ‘Any student can request some sort of individual accommodation, but to say we need some kind of one-size-fits-all approach is totally wrong. The presumption there is that students should not be forced to deal with something that makes them uncomfortable is absurd or even dangerous.’ ”
Preparing young men and women to become engaged members in a participatory democracy means exposing them to the marketplace of ideas and helping them develop the ability to discriminate among these ideas. This can only occur when they come into contact with thinkers and authors with whom they agree and with whom they may differ. To conclude in the words of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., “We should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe.”