A friend shared with me this article from The New York Times that discusses Trigger Words and the increasing demand from students that professors alert students when literature or art contains words, descriptions, or images that may cause pain, anxiety, or trigger awful memories. As the article opens, “Should students about to read The Great Gatsby be forewarned about ‘a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence,’ as one Rutgers student proposed? Would any book that addresses racism — like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Things Fall Apart — have to be preceded by a note of caution? Do sexual images from Greek mythology need to come with a viewer-beware label?” http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/18/us/warning-the-literary-canon-could-make-students-squirm.html?_r=0
On my Facebook page, the response has been predictably quick and strident—and mainly in one direction: that we are idly standing by playing the lyre whilst Rome burns around us—the end of Western Civilization as we know it is occurring, and we are watching indifferently. I must admit that I sang the first notes in this chorus, and joined my voice even louder as other ones sang lustily as well. I felt as if I had finally posted something on which all of us could agree. But then, I held a good conversation with my wife, a professor at a local college, and she, with her usual measure, was able to see another vantage point. We spoke for 20 minutes this morning—what a luxury to discuss an important topic with your spouse that doesn’t deal with progeny or husbandry—and she helped me to see another vantage point. Then, we spoke latter, and she told me that one of her colleagues, a Gender Studies professor, completely agreed with the idea that students should be prepared for shocking events in works of art, lest they be traumatized. Then, a dear friend, a Rhodes Scholar, no less, weighed in, and she, in her typical eloquence, poise, and empathy, suggested that what many of us were missing is the “self-care” portion of this request from students.
Hearing her position, I felt compelled to answer her and let her know that I respected her perspective, but that my fundamental position hadn’t changed: the purpose of art, as expressed by Hamlet, is “to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure” (III.i.). Our world is filled with pain, suffering, disappointment, “The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, /The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay, / The insolence of office,” and there is, in spite of the powerful words of Margaret Mead, very little that we can do to mitigate that truth. Shielding children from the ugliness of the world is a noble, but ultimately vain exercise. Eventually, each child will experience the world’s ugliness, and there are fewer guides more gentle, more supportive, more understanding than a good professor and a powerful piece of art. Art, then, allows us to understand and make sense of a confusing world in a relatively safe space. Seeing America’s hypocrisy through the eyes of Huckleberry Finn, or experiencing fear through Bigger Thomas’ eyes, or observing Tom Buchanan’s abusive and misogynist violence lets us know that our world holds ugly secrets, and when we read these works with classmates and we discuss them with skilled professors, we are able to process them and prepare ourselves for the world that we will inhabit and inherit.
I like to think of this idea as preparing the student for the road, not preparing the road for the student. The latter only seeks to handicap the child and make him or her unprepared for the challenges that lie ahead. A favorite parable supports this idea:
“A man spent hours watching a butterfly struggling to emerge from its cocoon. It managed to make a small hole, but its body was too large to get through it. After a long struggle, it appeared to be exhausted and remained absolutely still.
The man decided to help the butterfly and, with a pair of scissors, he cut open the cocoon, thus releasing the butterfly. However, the butterfly’s body was very small and wrinkled and its wings were all crumpled.
The man continued to watch, hoping that, at any moment, the butterfly would open its wings and fly away. Nothing happened; in fact, the butterfly spent the rest of its brief life dragging around its shrunken body and shriveled wings, incapable of flight.
What the man – out of kindness and his eagerness to help – had failed to understand was that the tight cocoon and the efforts that the butterfly had to make in order to squeeze out of that tiny hole were Nature’s way of training the butterfly and of strengthening its wings.
Sometimes, a little extra effort is precisely what prepares us for the next obstacle to be faced. Anyone who refuses to make that effort, or gets the wrong sort of help, is left unprepared to fight the next battle and never manages to fly off to their destiny.” (Adapted from a story sent in by Sonaira D’Avila)
Life is hard. Struggle is necessary. Some of our greatest humans, Nelson Mandela among them, have struggled mightily, emerging from their cocoons prepared to lead and to inspire.
Perhaps nothing is more heartwarming than to watch a mother do everything in her power to protect her child from the realities of a world that is filled with hunger, with woe, with loss. I admire all mothers and fathers who do whatever that they can to protect their children. And I admire teachers and caregivers who do the same. But at some point in a child’s life, he or she needs to know that sometimes we cannot be protected from all the pain and misery that our world affords. And literature and art provide a time-honored form and space for dealing with life’s heinousness. Too often, I fear, we spend our time preparing the road for children, instead of preparing the children for the difficult road ahead. It is always a balance when we choose to be inclusive of all peoples with wildly various experiences, but we all must accept that we can be decent and supportive without exposing every leaf of each flower that is the art experienced in our schools and our colleges.