If you remember, there’s a controversy about “trigger warnings,” and part of the controversy involved the teaching of Ovid’s Metamorphoses in Columbia’s Literature Humanities course, a seminar-type course that’s required for all and taken by mostly first-year students. It’s not entirely clear to an outsider where the complaint came from, in the form it eventually took, but it seems the issue was taken up by an organization created to discuss and combat sexual harassment and related problems.
Students in the course read and discuss classics of Western literature. The first semester covers the classical period, the second covers the Middle Ages and the modern period, up to the present day. The original intention of the course was to provide baseline knowledge for students. In a second required course, students read influential texts in the history of political and economic theory; “Lit Hum,” as it’s called, is for literature, history, and ethics. A third, newer course, introduces students to world cultures.
The question that was in the news involved scenes that describe the rape, or attempted rape, of mortal women by Greek or Roman gods (e.g., the rape of Daphne by Apollo, which was thwarted only when a different god took pity on the girl and turned her into a tree, so that she might avoid the awful fate of being defiled against her will). I intend to write more about this, but first I want to point out two items in the most recent issue of the alumni magazine, Columbia College Today:
Two letters to the editor complain about young people today and their sensitivities. The writers are men in their sixties or seventies; the complaints are the usual ones.
A few pages further on, there’s a note about the Lit Hum syllabus as it will be this year. The hook is that Toni Morrison has been added to the syllabus, the first time an African-American writer has been on the required list. (Individual instructors have been allowed to fill some slots in the course with readings they choose, and sometimes have assigned Morrison and other African-American writers.) Other changes involve the removal of Ovid, along with Medea, Sophocles, and Goethe’s Faust. Introduced, or returned, are Sappho, The Bacchae, Boccaccio, and Paradise Lost. The syllabus changes fairly frequently, so this isn’t surprising. When I took the course, we read Sophocles and both Medea and The Bacchae; other years students read The Trojan Women, or a different Euripides play, instead. Some sections read Boccaccio’s Decameron or Canterbury Tales or Faust.
The Latin literature included in the course is, frankly, not able to compete with the Greek literature in terms of quality, and I suspect is included for completeness—you have Herodotus and Thucydides and therefore also Livy, the Iliad and Odyssey and thus you have the Aeneid, as well—and for its content rather than its aesthetic qualities. So maybe Ovid was a convenient text for exposing students to Greek and Roman myths, as Livy was convenient for teaching something about the history of Rome, in fact and legend. And maybe Ovid was a refreshing change from the dutiful but not especially well-written or thoughtful Latin-in-translation that traditionally made up the last third of the term. I have a vague memory of some sections reading Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius; maybe Terence would be a nice introduction to one of Shakespeare’s sources, and more useful than Aristophanes. In the 1980s, there were a lot more very early modern of dubious interest, and almost nothing we’d today call “modern”: Jane Austen was often the most contemporary writer actually discussed, with Shakespeare and Cervantes next. There seem to be fewer assigned texts now, especially in the first half of the course. So the removal of one minor Latin text doesn’t seem to me to be a big deal.