Withdrawing supposedly harmful content helps no one
This week, an investigation by The Times revealed that ten universities have recently withdrawn books from compulsory reading lists because of concerns about “challenging” content that may “cause students harm”.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Railroad because of its “graphic description of violence and slavery”, while the University of Sussex has “permanently withdrawn” August Strindberg’s play Miss Julie due to its discussions of suicide.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).
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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.