Politics & Policy

Columbia Students Triggered by Old Books Are the Ones Who Need Them Most

“Achillus Battling Cygnus” from Metamorphoses by Antonio Tempesta

In 8 a.d., Ovid, the poet, the toast of Rome, was suddenly exiled to the remote outpost of Tomis. The reason remains a mystery. Ovid himself said only that his fate was caused by carmen et error — “a poem and a mistake.”

Two millennia later, a new effort to exile Ovid — not from Rome, but from Columbia University’s famed Core Curriculum — could be attributed to the same: carmen et error, where the poem is his Metamorphoses, and the error is that “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.” So wrote four undergraduate students earlier this month in Columbia’s campus newspaper, the Spectator. They would like a “trigger warning” affixed to Ovid’s masterwork.

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It is safe to say that these students (all members of Columbia’s “Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board,” by the by) overreached. Critics have been many and swift and savage. In her weekly Wall Street Journal column, Peggy Noonan pardoned the students on the grounds that “everyone in their 20s has the right to be an idiot.”

Idiocy is notoriously infectious, and it is not obvious that the obvious rebuttals will suffice.

But idiocy is notoriously infectious, and it is not obvious that the obvious rebuttals will suffice. For instance, critics have posed the natural reductio question, namely: If Ovid merits a “trigger warning,” doesn’t Shakespeare? Milton? Chaucer? The Bible? (Yes, yes, yes, and it doesn’t have one already?) But appealing to the power of Great Names — Shakespeare! — or repairing to mockery are sufficient responses only as long as a Great Name has the power to inspire awe, or mockery to inspire shame.

One cannot assume either today. The “trigger warning” crowd has placed the past on the defensive. The text must submit to the reader, not the other way around. Or as Columbia’s op-ed writers put it: “Students need to feel safe in the classroom, and that requires a learning environment that recognizes the multiplicity of their identities.”

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Notably, Columbia’s administration has played somewhat into this view. On the website for its Core Curriculum, Ovid is advertised as “a particularly modern poet. He knew how to take genres apart, recognizing and exposing their codes and patterns,” writes Classics professor James Uden.  “Then he delighted in reassembling them in surprising ways.” The Metamorphoses is itself “a radical kind of epic poem.” So, to students who have said, “Look how old and primitive and cruel Ovid is! He is nothing like us, which is why we should not read him!” Columbia has responded, “Look how fresh and contemporary and subversive Ovid is! He’s just like us, which is why we should read him!”

In an age in which quashing dissent in political and cultural life is increasingly the norm, Columbia’s response is alarming. Maybe Ovid is old, primitive, and cruel (he’s not, but let’s say so for argument’s sake); he is still different. And that’s increasingly important.

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In an introductory essay to St. Athanasius’s De Incarnatione (another very old book), C. S. Lewis made just this argument. “Every age has its own outlook,” wrote Lewis. “It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.”

Lewis is not suggesting (at least not here) that old books got things more right than new ones — Dante was not omniscient — but simply that they got things right (and wrong) differently: “Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.”

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Particularly in an age obsessed with “diversity,” such an observation is timely. Even a class of twentysomethings who hail from both Harlem and the Hamptons are likely to exhibit a consensus on a whole swath of fundamental questions. But older writers, not brought up in 21st-century America, won’t. They will think differently. They will use unfamiliar words in unfamiliar constructions; they will combat unfamiliar enemies and call upon unfamiliar friends; they will wrestle with unfamiliar questions and offer unfamiliar answers.

#related#And that unfamiliarity is the point. Reading old books is a way of resisting the cultural and intellectual uniformity that develops when one’s intellectual horizon is one’s own birthdate. A great deal of such uniformity is evident in modern American political and cultural and intellectual life.

Being able to stand outside of it, to offer a detached and learned perspective on our present discontents, is much of the reason for education in the first place. Colleges that seek to turn out original thinkers, persons not bounded by their own time who can offer that substantive critique, are rare. But they remain — as do students up to the challenge.

Any of those students who attend Columbia may want to consider transferring.

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