by Kristina Murkett
Wednesday, 10
August 2022
Campus Wars
15:30

Students don’t need protecting from ‘challenging’ books

Withdrawing supposedly harmful content helps no one
by Kristina Murkett
Let them speak. Credit: Getty

This week, an investigation by The Times revealed that ten universities have recently withdrawn books from compulsory reading lists because of concerns about “challenging” content that may “cause students harm”. For example, the University of Essex has permanently removed Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Underground Railroad because of its “graphic description of violence and slavery”, while the University of Sussex has “permanently withdrawn” August Strindberg’s play Miss Julie due to its discussions of suicide. 

The Times also found that trigger warnings had been applied to over 1000 texts, ranging from the classicism of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (University of Aberdeen) to the “upsetting scenes” of Far From The Madding Crowd (University of Warwick) to — my personal favourite — the “animal cruelty” of 1984 (University Greenwich).

Alongside these headline-grabbing stats there are some other interesting details. For example, the Universities of Exeter and Lancaster both gave students the option to not read particularly graphic texts about slavery and sexual violence, and said that they could ask for an alternative instead without facing any academic penalties, yet not a single student did, suggesting that the universities’ fears were unfounded.

It is difficult to reconcile this idea that Gen Z is so easily shocked that they can only read about topics such as slavery in a sanitised form with the realities of their media consumption. This is a generation who love true crime and dark TV shows like Euphoria and 13 Reasons Why, with their graphic depictions of drug use, self-harm and rape; this is a generation where social media means that everyday they are exposed to potentially far more harmful content than they will find in Romeo and Juliet, Agatha Christie, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, or any other book where trigger warnings are deemed necessary.

My experience as someone who has taught and tutored teenagers and undergraduates is that the vast, vast majority of young people are sensible and resilient enough to take a wide range of sometimes uncomfortable and difficult material in their stride and judge it, and its impact, for themselves. Rather than shying away from controversial topics, most students, especially the brightest, embrace them. Students know that English Literature is one of the few places they get the opportunity to discuss the titillating, the taboo, the tragic and the terrible openly, and to take that away from them is to do them a great disservice.

This is why instead of calling students snowflakes, we should instead be more concerned with the academics and administrators who imagine (wrongly) that students need some form of “protection” from “emotionally challenging topics” or appreciate their attempts to provide it. Too often assumptions are made about students on the basis of a small but outspoken minority; for example, YouGov polling has found no evidence that UK students are more hostile to free speech than other groups, and that over two-thirds of 18-24 year olds agreed that people are too easily offended nowadays.

The idea that shielding students from provocative issues is a kind of pastoral care is therefore a deeply misguided one. It’s not only infantilising and condescending, but it is also founded on no real data or basis. Universities may claim that they remove texts for fear of “harming” their students, but the truth is they have nothing to fear but fear itself.

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Zak Orn
Zak Orn
1 month ago

“Progressives”: Students are too fragile and immature even at university level to read books that might hurt their little feelings. Also “progressives”: This 6 year old is definitely mature enough to make the life-changing decision of changing their ‘gender’, if you do anything other than affirm their choice you are a literal fascist.
It would be funny if these clowns weren’t doing so much damage to society.

Charles Custard
Charles Custard
1 month ago
Reply to  Zak Orn

To be more precise it is “our society”.

Tom Lewis
Tom Lewis
1 month ago

The author seems to think that ‘protecting’ the students is the aim of the exercise. It is not. The aim is to ‘produce’ students who know nothing ‘challenging’, apart from that which they are ‘allowed’ to know, all the better to manipulate them with later.

Can’t have students with critical thinking skills now can we ? They might start thinking for themselves, and that would never do.

Garry Craig Powell
Garry Craig Powell
1 month ago
Reply to  Tom Lewis

I used to teach at an American university, and honestly tried to help my students learn to think for themselves, and I wasn’t the only one who did so. However, as you say, many of my colleagues were trying to mould the students’ thinking. I once overheard one professor saying to another that we needed to inculcate the right values in our students, since they had never been exposed to them. (What she meant was that most had grown up in Christian fundamentalist households, as this was Arkansas, the heartland of Hillary’s ‘deplorables’.) I was deeply shocked by that and was in more or less open resistance thereafter. The professor who had advocated the brainwashing tried – and failed – to get me fired. But eventually I resigned: it was so stressful attempting to teach people to think critically and creatively in such an environment that my health began to suffer.

Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
1 month ago

I think the problem is that the universities are afraid of the students, and worry that this will provide a pretext where they will get sued by the sort of person who likes doing such things.

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
1 month ago

I’m triggered by the idea of infantilizing students.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
1 month ago

It would be nice to have a bit of “evidence based” education, instead of a woke travesty of what the younger generation can handle without trauma. It is one thing to ban peanut consumption on an airplane in case an allergy-sufferer experiences an anaphylactic shock it is quite another to censor works that have not caused trauma in the past because of a fear of some hypersensitive reader protesting.

Hector Mildew
Hector Mildew
1 month ago

“The Times also found that trigger warnings had been applied to over 1000 texts, ranging from the classicism of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (University of Aberdeen)”
We did this in English Lit in my first year at grammar school in 1960. I remember it vividly. Is there someone I can sue? If London County Council (who supplied the texts) still existed I could make a claim against them, perhaps.
Which reminds me – nothing to do with the article, but all the books the LCC supplied had “loss or damage must be made good” stamped on the flyleaf. My witty classmate said he thought it meant that if you lose or damage them, make sure you do it properly.  

Richard Parker
Richard Parker
1 month ago

Isn’t it time for grown ups to get back to the (important) business of being grown ups? Where else do upcoming generations find a foil against which to test their developing ideas about the world?

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago

Is there any factual evidence from the last 200 or so years that any of these books actually harmed people ? Rather than just assuming that they might be harmful, how about looking for some evidence ? We surely have enough experience now to be able to measure something.
Of course, it may be that exposure to “challenging material” is actually helpful for human development. I don’t know of any field where you don’t improve knowledge, skills or performance without pushing through the edge of your comfort zone.
Of course, if all you want is uniform mediocrity this new way of thinking may be just the ticket …

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

The problem in academia today is that even asking for evidence is seen as bigoted, especially if it comes from a white man with little institutional power. Logic is often described as a tool of oppression created by white supremacists.
The problem with education today is that it operates under a closed loop ideology. Everything affirms it; even arguments against it are treated as evidence of hatred and supremacy, which then makes administrators and professors double-down on the coddling. It’s almost cult-like how they love-bomb students while making them pay tens of thousands of dollars for the experience.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 month ago

Am i alone in thinking that the greater the trigger warning, the more eager to read? And what would be the point of including a text that didn’t require one? The academics are clearly too stupid to understand reverse psychology.

Ludwig van Earwig
Ludwig van Earwig
1 month ago

Q. What do you call 100 progressive educators, at the bottom of the sea, their feet encased in cement?

Hector Mildew
Hector Mildew
1 month ago

A result.

Ludwig van Earwig
Ludwig van Earwig
1 month ago

A. A good start.

N T
N T
1 month ago

I would call it “suspicious”.

Jim R
Jim R
1 month ago

Gosh, could it be that our little angels have been feigning hurt and outrage all along, simply to get attention and mess with authority figures? Shocking!

polidori redux
polidori redux
1 month ago

The question that needs to be answered is: Why are universities protecting their students from shocking material? The academics and administrators censoring these texts know, from their own experience, that no harm will be caused by reading them. So what is the motivation for this seemingly inexplicable behaviour?

Justin Clark
Justin Clark
1 month ago
Reply to  polidori redux

Perhaps it’s to “filter out” those teachers/academics who object… to achieve complete domination of the education establishments…

Garry Craig Powell
Garry Craig Powell
1 month ago

Two corrections: Midsummer Night’s Dream was censored for ‘classism’ not ‘classicism’ and I believe the animal cruelty was in Animal Farm, not 1984. But I agree with the article of course.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 month ago

…I believe the animal cruelty was in Animal Farm, not 1984.
Unless the author was referring to the rats, in Room 101?

Charles Lewis
Charles Lewis
1 month ago

The proponents of critical race and gender theory have as one of their main objectives the enfeeblement of society. This includes training the younger generation to see themselves as weak, indecisive and needing protection in all the aspects of their lives. When the revolution comes, it is thought, they will not be in a fit state to oppose the revolutionaries.
As I recently posted:
We should not knock the uni’s. They do a remarkable job on their inmates, training them in the virtues of being hyper-sensitive non-resilient weaklngs, quick to take offence at almost anything, seeing micro-aggressions in the blink of an eye (someone else’s), for ever feeling ‘unsafe’, requiring an endless stream of trigger-warnings (from Beowulf through Lear — King , but probably Edward as well –to Pride and Prejudice and onward), shutting out debate, by violence if necessary, and so forth — and that is not to mention vilifying as much of our history as imagination can manage, and hating our country, all accompanied by narcissistic self-flagellation for white, or any other, guilt. 
Do you want your, or anyone else’s, child to emerge from uni in that state, part of a failed generation?

Douglas McNeish
Douglas McNeish
1 month ago
Reply to  Charles Lewis

Those who favour this trajectory will of course feign non-comprehension if challenged.

Dominic A
Dominic A
1 month ago

Maybe, they should pop over to the psychology department and ask the Profs there what they think of this – is it facilitating functional protection, or dysfunctional avoidance?

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
1 month ago

The way it happens in the US:
The school (or corporation, or whatever) reacts to a complaint by hiring a lawyer. They’re not concerned with anyone’s welfare. They’re worried about getting sued.
The lawyer has a legal obligation to protect the client, keep them out of court, attend to their best interests. So he or she says: “Remove the book, label the offensive passage, fire the guy who got a bit grabby at the Xmas party of 2004. It’s the easiest way to protect yourself. Think of your endowment, or profits, or your grants. You owe it to your institution, your employees, etc.”
Neither morals or logic ever really enters the story.
Is the UK similar in this regard?

Douglas McNeish
Douglas McNeish
1 month ago

The court awards are small by comparison, but enough to incentives institutions to follow legal advice above all.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
1 month ago

So, 16 year olds are mature enough to vote but not mature enough to cope with a challenging book.

Nikki Hayes
Nikki Hayes
1 month ago

This is ludicrous – university students are adults who should be able to cope with “distressing content”! How much more are we going to nanny our young adults? We are producing a generation of snowflakes who are defined by safe spaces and hurt feelings. I seriously fear for our country when these deluded people become our potential leaders.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 month ago

Perhaps the Ladybird book of Rubber backboned woke, or 5 go a self indulging ?

Michael James
Michael James
1 month ago

When I was an undergradute in the libertarian 1960s, we would have eagerly sought out any literature that the authorities tried to stop us reading.

Last edited 1 month ago by Michael James
Douglas McNeish
Douglas McNeish
1 month ago

Rabbit hole of performative behaviour by academia to avoid colleague disapproval and to please student unions controlled by activists.

Ultimately all literature courses could have to be eliminated in favour of activist approved social justice indoctrination. Or revert to STEM only curriculum, though that too has been deemed “problematic” by progressive groups.

Douglas H
Douglas H
1 month ago

Thanks, I just hope you are right!

Mike Smith
Mike Smith
1 month ago

I doubt if any of them have actually read a book.

Malcolm Webb
Malcolm Webb
1 month ago

I experienced two types of teacher. One saw knowledge as something they poured into us from their own store. The other taught us the benefits of exploring various sources of knowledge. The former had their use in the very early days but the latter were the ones I treasured in my later years at school and especially at University. Sadly it seems the former type has asserted itself and it’s adherents are using their very limited knowledge to dictate their prejudices in our supposed seats of learning