A few months ago, when trigger warnings and college syllabi were the main trendy object of discussion, one of the arguments against such warnings, and against changes to courses’ reading lists, was that students ought to be challenged, to read things that make them uncomfortable, that make them think. Leaving aside whether there are places where making students literally uncomfortable in their feelings might not be an appropriate goal for a course—I’d think the idea that there might be at least one place where a practice like this might be conceded, by everybody, to be misguided, as would the idea that sometimes, making at least some people uncomfortable might be entirely called for—I was struck by the number of college professors who wrote articles stating that one of the main things they liked to make students feel uncomfortable about was sex. One teacher, I remember (I think it was in the New Republic) listed a description of his reading list that showed it was entirely about sex: ranging from the eighteenth-century seduction novel Clarissa to a poem from the same era that imagined the ugliness of the king’s testicles as he had intercourse with his mistress. I don’t think I’m a prude, and I fully intend someday to read Clarissa (it’s quite long and I hear it’s somewhat tedious), but I had to ask why? Why these readings?
Maybe fifty years ago, in the generation before mine, it probably seemed really edgy to assign undergraduates (or high school students), most of whom were going to be men (and teenage boys), books with lots of sex in them, or where sex is used in provocative ways to drive literary qualities or thinking about ideas. Probably it would keep them interested. A sex scene or two, or the promise of one a little further on, might get an otherwise dry or longwinded book actually read. It might make the endeavor of reading and thinking feel exciting and adult. Fifty years ago, a class where the reading list was jam-packed with books about sex would have been refreshingly different from all the other, more old-fashioned course offerings.
These readings, at one time, possibly could teach young men about the ways their adult culture thinks about sex. Some of the messages they teach are: sex is ridiculous, desire is ridiculous, the human body is ridiculous; sex disappoints, in the end; desire makes people do stupid things. They also can teach that sexual desire is a human constant that therefore can be used as a metaphor for a number of more serious concerns. But for the past sixty or seventy years, the teaching of texts about sex to young men (and, increasingly, to women) has been to convey the message: sex is the most liberating of all things. Forcing young to “confront” messages about sex that they are—presumably—as was the case for almost all of those seventy years—conditioned, by their upbringing to fear—could have been a kind of forced-march LSD trip, freeing them from a number of preconceptions and inducing them to begin thinking things through for themselves. Or there might be a number of less violent metaphors possible, though along these same lines. It might be as simple as wanting to encourage kids who are presumably repressed (how else could they have studied hard enough to get into an Ivy League university (a person who knows nothing about such places might reason) if they had dated in school, and how could they have avoided dating unless they’d been repressed?) to think about sex and marriage as normal, to-be-expected things.
But these days, kids are not entering college with little to no knowledge about sex and desire. And those texts are not anymore describing the way our adult culture thinks about these things. Instead, they are weirdly prurient at the same time they are anachronistically prudish.
In the 1950s, Lionel Trilling complained that he wanted to teach his students about “the abyss,” the thing Kafka described, which Trilling believed was a live possibility of existential despair for every intelligent man. His students, however, as he described them, peeked over the edge of the abyss, said something like, “How interesting,” and then pulled back, and described what they noticed in a dutiful academic way. This disappointed Trilling. Thirty years later, though, Allan Bloom described his students as doing something like the opposite. He wanted to bring them to a kind of sudden enlightenment about the nature of the world, by introducing them to certain classic texts, and was frustrated to find they weren’t sufficiently shocked for his methods to work. They knew too much about sex, from television and rock and roll and postwar teen culture. They weren’t in need of liberation because they’d already been liberated. But they’d been liberated into the wrong culture, in Bloom’s opinion: into a democratic culture, one that he thought made it impossible for them to be educated into the culture he would have preferred for them. It isn’t necessary to agree with either Bloom or Trilling to see that the world in which these reading lists were drawn up is long gone.
Let’s be clear: what these classes are about is asking kids to publicly discuss sex, bodies, sexual coercion, and sexual disappointment publicly, in front of other kids, who may or may not react in a very mature fashion. Are instructors expecting their classmates to make fun of one another’s genitalia, to reveal whether they agree with Andrew Marvell’s take on the king’s sex life or whether they disagree, and to give valid reasons? To reveal the extent, or lack, of their own individual sexual experience? Some of the people defending this kind of assignment most stringently must be envisioning an enormous lecture course, in which students read the texts on their own time, in the privacy of their own dorm rooms or the chaste environment of the library, are told how to think about the ideas and the literary symbols, and go back to their chaste solitude to ponder what they’ve heard from the teacher and work out their beliefs and feelings by themselves, then to write it all out in academic cadences as best they can. I find it hard to believe they’re imagining a typical discussion section; I find it hard to believe they’ve even witnessed such a thing.
One of the cases that’s been brought up to ridicule the idea of “trigger warnings” involved my alma mater, Columbia College. Columbia has long had a core curriculum that mandates a couple of semesters of texts from classical Greece and Rome, as well as scripture, for all undergraduates. In recent years (not including this one), one of the assigned texts was a selection from the Roman poet Ovid’s verse epic, the Metamorphoses. The literary importance of the Metamorphoses these days is that it relates a number of classical myths—stories kids in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries most frequently encounter in compendiums like the D’Aulaires’ or Roger Lancelyn Green’s—in a canonical form. Many of the myths are a kind of just-so story that explains the present-day form of natural entities like species of trees, as the product of magical transformations of humans into nonsentient form; so they have a certain amount of philosophical or metaphysical interest, as well, as a form of early or proto-scientific thought. Their main interest for the core curriculum, though, is presumably the fact that they were, for centuries, influential for the authors of more recently canonical books.
Several of the influential texts from Greek and Roman mythology involve rapes. These are stories that are read by quite young children, but they do involve rapes. Women are abducted, usually by gods, sometimes in their own human-appearing form but at other times in the form of large animals like bulls or swans, and returned to their fathers pregnant. Many of the myths that don’t involve rape, instead, involve the gods’ legitimate wives’ jealousy over their husbands’ mistresses and affairs; gods’ rivalry over different human women; and, especially in the case of goddesses, misguided wishes and gifts granted to mortal men as love-offerings. Others involve the gods’ interference in human conflicts, on one side or the other, preferentially, because their own half-divine, half-human sons are involved (as in the cases of Hercules, Perseus, and Achilles).
There are also a fair number of stories of attempted but failed rapes, in which a virgin is rescued, by another god or by a nature spirit, by being turned into a plant. These, too, are influential. Perhaps such a myth lies behind Shakespeare’s characterization of the choice between marriage and the convent in the words, “Earthlier happy is the rose distilled, than that which, withering on the virgin thorn, grows, lives, and dies in single blessedness.” I imagine such stories contain a good deal of fine nature writing. And like the poems mentioned by the New Republic writer, I’d imagine stories like these offer a number of opportunities for discussion of subjects like relations between the sexes, the nature of desire, and things along those lines.
The Metamorphoses, presumably, is good poetry, and could probably allow a pretty good discussion in literary terms. I can also imagine a teacher, perhaps, being carried away, becoming a little bit overdramatic. I’m sure we’ve all seen a young teacher, at the high school or college level, trying to engage some bored students by acting out the sexual parts so no one will fail to get the idea. I can imagine enthusiastic students getting carried away by double entendre and pushing class discussion to places the instructor hadn’t intended it to go. What I can’t imagine is a situation where a student could stand up and say, “This is rape,” and not meet with very strong pushback, even ridicule, unless with the most exceptional, politically conscious instructor.
We don’t know exactly what happened at Columbia that term. We know only that one woman felt uncomfortable in the class and brought her concerns to the attention of a group studying gender issues in the classroom. All the subsequent actions, so far as we know—including all the published articles, letters to the editor, etc.—were carried out by that group. Following up on students’ concerns, while ensuring their privacy, is exactly what they ought to have done. Instead of this, however, we were treated to a media narrative in which some single woman, acting on her own and for reasons that presumably any responsible person would find laughable, kept writing blog posts and letters to the editor, complaining about her entire unexceptional plight.