Tom Slater Tom Slater

Are students really too fragile for Shakespeare?

Trigger warnings undermine the purpose of universities

What’s the point of a university? Regrettably, that’s a genuine question. The censorship and trigger warnings that are rife on British campuses make it hard to work out what our formerly esteemed institutions of higher education are for anymore, now that free speech, intellectual challenge and the pursuit of truth have become deeply unfashionable.

Hundreds of freedom-of-information requests were sent out by the Times to officials across 140 UK universities. The responses found that trigger warnings, telling students that certain works might be upsetting or even traumatising, have been applied to more than 1,000 texts. At least ten universities have even removed books from reading lists or made them optional out of concerns they might ‘harm’ students.

Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Underground Railroad, was among the books affected. It was removed from an English course at the University of Essex over its ‘graphic description of violence and abuse of slavery’. Miss Julie, the classic play by August Strindberg, has been ‘permanently withdrawn’ from a literature module at the University of Sussex because it contains discussion of suicide.

Academics decided Charlie Hebdo was ‘racist, sexist, bigoted, (and) Islamophobic’

Other texts have been made optional on account of their ‘challenging’ content. At Nottingham Trent, students of French no longer have to study Charlie Hebdo, the satirical French magazine whose staff were 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 books are downright comical. Aberdeen has put one on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for ‘classism’ and labelled Chaucer ‘emotionally challenging’. Not to be outdone, Greenwich warns students that Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four ‘contains self-injurious behaviour, suicide, animal cruelty’. But what about the whole totalitarianism thing?

Those who insist such measures are essential to looking after ‘vulnerable’ students haven’t been paying attention.

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