What is a university for? Unfortunately, this is a real question. The censorship and trigger warnings plaguing UK campuses make it difficult to determine what our once esteemed higher education institutions are for, now that free speech, intellectual challenge and the search for truth have become deeply out of fashion.
Hundreds of access to information requests have been sent by the Time to officials at 140 UK universities. Responses revealed that trigger warnings, telling students that certain works could be upsetting or even traumatic, were applied to more than 1,000 texts. At least ten universities have even removed books from reading lists or made them optional over fears they will harm students.
Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Colson Whitehead The Underground Railroad, was one of the affected books. It was removed from an English course at the University of Essex because of its “graphic portrayal of the violence and abuse of slavery”. Miss Juliethe classic play by August Strindberg, has been “permanently removed” from a literature module at the University of Sussex because it contains a discussion of suicide.
Other texts have been made optional due to their “difficult” content. In Nottingham Trent, French students no longer have to study Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine whose staff was gunned down by Islamists seven years ago. Why? Because academics decided the magazine was “racist, sexist, bigoted, (and) Islamophobic.”
Some of the trigger warnings slapped on the books are downright comical. Aberdeen put one on Shakespeare Dream of a summer night for “classism” and labeled Chaucer “emotionally difficult”. Not to be outdone, Greenwich warns students that Orwell One thousand nine hundred and eighty four “contains behaviors of self-harm, suicide, animal cruelty”. But what about this whole thing about totalitarianism?
Those who insist that such measures are essential to deal with “vulnerable” students have paid no attention. Trigger warnings, as a therapeutic intervention to help those suffering from genuine mental distress, are woefully wrong. There is no proper evidence that they work. And as a general tool in education, they are a disaster: they discourage students from reading certain books and institutionalize the idea that students cannot deal with difficult material.
Books abandoned or covered in warnings are fascinating. Take the case of the University of Essex and The Underground Railroad, which was published in 2016. A contemporary book by an African-American author was scrapped because its depiction of the horrors of slavery might upset some privileged English students. There is no better indication of the confusion and non-progressiveness of campus censorship than this.
Naturally, academics dismiss the investigation. They say a few universities playing with reading lists aren’t having a free speech crisis, blithely ignoring the more than 1,000 trigger warnings that have been uncovered. They also turn a blind eye to official data showing a sharp rise in non-platforming on campus. Instead, the backlash from these triggering warnings has been dismissed as a right-wing culture war.
This response from universities only underscores the point of their critics: that these once important places of learning have become glorified nurseries. Universities have completely lost sight of their founding principles. They now function, almost explicitly, as communities of like-minded people and as therapeutic spaces in which fragile souls can take shelter from the supposed horror of the world. Opposing viewpoints are discouraged and students are spared the indignity of reading a “difficult” book.
Without freedom of expression, without intellectual courage, you don’t have a university. Those who run higher education desperately need a reminder.