Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm - NYTimes.com

Should our literary canon come with "trigger warnings", advisories to students suffering from afflictions psychological and otherwise that the material covered in an English class's course reading might cause them pain, anxiety and suffering because of the way the authors dealt with such brutish issues of rape, suicide, racism, misogyny, ie, every fucked thing you could think of? Ought we protect those young people considered damaged or too impressionable from the poetic form of truth-telling that literature provides and dares us, by its existence, to discuss and make sense  of ? A recent article in the New York Times report a movement among some groups, teachers, administrators and students among them, to provide such warning labels: Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm - NYTimes.co


The essential point of studying liberal arts and humanities while in college, I believed , was to develop and strengthen one's capacity for critical thinking ; a salient facet of critical discernment is supposed to be the capacity for interrogating those ideas and hard facts of existence and to imagine, that is to say, create a life where truth , justice and fair play can exist. The least of the benefits would be to empower the individual student  with those mental powers to raise above what has impeded them, harmed them, blocked them in some way and enable them to make   better choices, smarter choices, in the kind of life they want to lead in the larger world. Those better decisions would, in turn, benefit the community as a whole,  in all matters, in large and small ways, in a cumulative manner, over time. That, of course , is the ideal. But we see here that there is a rise in the sort of nannyism that seeks, in large measure, of making sure that victims of terrible things--rape, robbery, disease, financial ruin, economic injustice--remain victims and that they remain protected..

 The point of reading tragedies, comedies, plays with cruel , ironic endings is for the readers, whom, we assume, are generally smarter by several points more than would be protectors might otherwise grant them, to face up to the  fact that human beings never rise above the station of  being human and , however rigorous their moral codes, religious beliefs, no matter how rock solid their ethical constructs and principles  be, we are merely people with instincts, urges, itches that cannot be scratched and with instincts to dominate, conquer, hurt. Literature , in this case, is an imaginative way of letting the young adults that there is more in store in the real world than socially constructed Ideals that are perfect in their arguments and imperfect in their implementation. College is the place for young adults to challenge their assumptions with new facts about how humans really behave; protecting the great lot of students who've been convinced they  have been harmed beyond repair and must be warned when course readings might deal with some aspect of existence that has caused them pain, great and small, mental and physical, we harm them even further.

Most important, perhaps , is what comes in the alleged aftershock of having read the works of Twain, Sade, Sartre, Faulkner, Toni Morrison, William Burroughs, et al, the discussion of what  it was just read by a room full of students, each with their visceral response becoming articulate and formed, edited, honed, modified,sharpened through discussion and debate with the readership community that has experienced the same set of  potentially traumatizing fictional happenstance as way not just gauging the human psyche's propensity for provoking unexpected and problem-making actions, but in listening and learning as well from the experience of others around them. The point is to engage the world beyond the cocoon of home and institutions. We need to be able to be able to think about ourselves in the world imaginative writers draw their inspiration from.  Without the kind of engagement critical thinking empowers us with, we are bigger fools, dolts, layabouts and drooling buffoons than we already are.

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