Columbia University: Let’s Not Hurt Students’ Feelings

Angled view of Columbia University and students walking to and from campus

In Columbia University’s student newspaper, four members of the school’s student Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board call on professors to be more sensitive when teaching provocative or controversial material… such as the Roman classical poet Ovid.

Ovid is best known for The Metamorphoses, a 15-book narrative poem that covers more than 250 mythological stories. Written entirely in dactylic hexameter, The Metamorphoses inspired future writers from Dante to Chaucer to Shakespeare. [source: 5/12/15]

Imagine if in the newspaper of a prestigious university, four members of the school’s Medical School Affairs & Advisory Board wrote an op-ed demanding that medical school teachers become more sensitive to the needs of the students, by not offending their digestive or other sensibilities when examining the effects, origins and treatments for various diseases.

How would this impair the ability of teachers in science and medicine to help educate and train the physicians and surgeons upon whom any of us might someday depend for our very lives?

You might reply, “Well, the humanities are just a waste of time anyway. Social sciences, behavioral science, political science and studies of cultures don’t matter, while the study of the body and diseases do.”

I will take issue with this claim. I will argue that the humanities do matter, and in a moment I will explain why. But this certainly cannot be the claim of the members of Columbia University’s Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board. As representatives of students in the humanities, including the behavioral and social sciences, they presumably think that training students in these fields, and helping them be as knowledgable as possible, is the central and overriding goal of higher education in those disciplines.

Here’s what they actually had to say in the op-ed:

During the week spent on Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” the class was instructed to read the myths of Persephone and Daphne, both of which include vivid depictions of rape and sexual assault. As a survivor of sexual assault, the student described being triggered while reading such detailed accounts of rape throughout the work. However, the student said her professor focused on the beauty of the language and the splendor of the imagery when lecturing on the text. As a result, the student completely disengaged from the class discussion as a means of self-preservation. She did not feel safe in the class. When she approached her professor after class, the student said she was essentially dismissed, and her concerns were ignored.

Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” is a fixture of Lit Hum, but like so many texts in the Western canon, it contains triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities in the classroom. These texts, wrought with histories and narratives of exclusion and oppression, can be difficult to read and discuss as a survivor, a person of color, or a student from a low-income background.[Source: 4/30/15]

The basic premises and reasoning here are as follows: In studying the history of literature, some students may find certain aspects of stories, novels or mythology upsetting, because of past personal experiences or other individual, psychological factors. As a result, the university must temper, modify or in some other way alter (even censor) the content of what they teach — for the sole and express purpose of ensuring that nobody’s feelings ever get disturbed, upset or hurt in any way.

It’s hard to imagine a more anti-intellectual attitude than this. If we applied this policy to the non-humanities fields, those fields would lose their effectiveness and credibility very fast, producing nothing but timid and ignorant hacks with meaningless degrees, and we’d all be the worse off for it.

As for the humanities — they do matter. I’d argue that the trends in the humanities fields — most fundamentally, philosophy, but also the fields of history, psychology, economics, art and culture, etc. — set the stage for the rest of what goes on in a culture, including science and business. Philosophy is the most basic humanities discipline, which determines whether we can trust the evidence of our senses, including our more advanced scientific knowledge, or not.

The extent to which philosophy and its derivative fields downplay or denigrate the human mind and the human means of knowledge (reason, i.e. rationally gained intelligence) is the extent to which a culture will flounder and, in the worst case, ultimately fall in the more obviously crucial areas of scientific discovery and technological innovation. Fewer jobs, fewer businesses, less wealth production overall, economic stagnation and more frequent and severe depressions or recessions — sounds familiar, doesn’t it? We’re moving in that direction because our higher schools of learning have been moving in that direction for a lot longer.

These students at Columbia — who will almost certainly be met either with enthusiastic agreement or politically correct compliance by most of their teachers and administrators — are advancing the idea that people are helpless, emotionally fragile, and barely capable of making it through the day. As a result, the content of what we teach students, and the manner in which we teach it, must be based on that assumption.

Notice that their answer isn’t to suggest counseling or some other form of emotional support to the student who felt traumatized by the content of the literature class. The solution wasn’t to tell that individual student, “Wow, you have a lot of unresolved feelings, and it might be wise to address those in some other kind of context. Drop the class and pursue another one.” No doubt, this is part of what they mean by improper and insensitive “dismissing.”

No. That would all be too rational, too adult-like. It would consist of holding the person responsible for her emotions — not blaming her for things that happened to her that weren’t her fault, but simply educating her that this class was not the time or place to confront those feelings. Other students are there to learn. Either the material does not upset them, or it doesn’t upset them so much they must complain to the teacher. What is the teacher supposed to do, anyway? The teacher is responsible for teaching — not for providing psychotherapy. What business does this student — and the student board encouraging and defending her — have in expecting guaranteed emotional comfort from any particular teacher or class?

Instead, the approach offered is, “If one person gets upset, then potentially anyone could get upset. Change the lesson plan — for everyone.”

As I said, it’s the very definition of anti-intellectualism. It’s not the policy of an institution of higher learning. It’s the policy of a mental hospital, where you seek to stabilize poor lost, fragile souls for the sake of the entire institution’s safety and comfort. Whatever happened to the idea that higher education is supposed to challenge, stimulate, and  even — at times — upset and anger, particularly in humanities fields such as art, literature, history and philosophy?

These students are simply responding to what they are learning from their teachers, in most cases. If philosophy, and the related humanities disciplines, have taught you that man is a helpless beast waiting to happen, that the rational mind is impotent for dealing with reality and that we’re all lost souls, not unlike those mental patients, then this call for more “sensitivity” makes sense. But only on that premise.

“The fish rots from the head down.” The head — in human terms — refers to the intellect. Highly respected universities like Columbia train some of our most accomplished and productive members of society. We undermine them — and all our well-being — by treating people as more helpless and fragile than they really are. In the process, we sacrifice higher education and make both the concept — and the degrees rewarded — hollow and meaningless.


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