Brendan O’Neill

If archaeology students can’t cope with ‘scary bones’, they really are doomed

If archaeology students can't cope with 'scary bones', they really are doomed
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Just when you thought the trigger-warning trend on campus couldn’t get any more bonkers it’s reported that archaeology students are being allowed to dodge discussions of ‘traumatic’ historic events. Yes, students  whose entire academic mission is to dig up bones, pore over old stuff and work out what the hell mankind was doing / thinking a thousand-odd years ago are being warned that such excavations can uncover ‘disturbing’ stuff that might ‘traumatise’ them because 'bones can be scary'. So they should feel free to nip out of class if it gets too much. Archaeology students being told archaeology is a scary pursuit — I think we’ve reached peak campus madness.

The students in question are at University College London. Those taking the archaeologies of modern conflict course have been given permission by the course tutor to ‘walk out of classes if they find dealing with some topics too traumatic’. These ‘distressed students’ will not be penalised for cutting class, so long as they ‘copy the notes of another student’. (Wait — won’t those notes be traumatising too?) All the course’s students are told in advance that looking into historic wars and events can be ‘disturbing’. It’s like a modern version of that pained medieval cry against exploration of uncharted land: ‘Here be dragons.’

Part of me is jealous of today’s students. In my day you had to invent a flu or poorly grandparent to get out of a lecture; now you only need to cry ‘I’m triggered!’ and you can clear a few hours for boozing. But of course there’s a major problem here: the relentless infantilisation of students, the treatment of them as overgrown children liable to be plunged by mere words or images into actual trauma (‘a disturbing experience which affects the mind or nerves of a person so as to induce hysteria or psychic conditions’: OED). The very idea of the university becomes impossible if students are presumed to be so mentally fragile that even class chatter could unhinge them psychically.

The trigger-warning trend, rampant on American campuses, is spreading in Britain. Before UCL’s warnings about archaeology, Royal Holloway was telling English Lit students that Ovid’s poems describe ‘domestic violence and other nasty things’, so they’d better brace themselves, or maybe avoid Ovid altogether. At Oxford, law students are warned that lectures on sexual violence can be ‘distressing’ and are given the ‘opportunity to leave’. In the future can we expect lawyers to flee the courtroom, screaming for a safe space, whenever murders are discussed or photos of injuries are shown? In the US, students have demanded trigger warnings on everything from The Great Gatsby (contains ‘suicide, domestic abuse and graphic violence’) to Shakespeare (some of his plays reference rape, murder, torture. Like Titus Andronicus. As a Penn State professor of literature says, ‘Everyone is traumatised by Titus’).

This presumption of mental frailty among students, now seen as so psychically vulnerable that even F Scott Fitzgerald might traumatise them, is antithetical to the whole idea of university life, whose starting point must surely be that young adults are not only mentally competent but morally autonomous and intellectually curious. The overuse of the word ‘trauma’ to describe everything from an archaeology class to an old play shows how entrenched this view of students has become. As an American professor of psychology says, ‘When we describe misfortune, sadness or even pain as trauma… [we] turn every event into a catastrophe, leaving us helpless, broken and unable to move on’. In short, the more we tell young adults that everything is potentially traumatic, the more likely they are to experience everything as traumatic, or at least terrifying. We’re seriously teaching young people to see Shakespeare as potentially harmful to their mental health.

Strikingly, the UCL archaeology lecturer says that so far none of his students has accepted his offer to leave a ‘traumatic’ class discussion. That’s encouraging. It’s also revealing. It suggests the new campus craziness, the wild allergy to difficult debate and fear of offensive texts, doesn’t always come from students themselves. It’s been institutionalised, among actual academics, to such an extent that universities no longer instil in their students the Kantian idea that one should ‘Dare to know’ but rather tell them: ‘Sometimes it’s risky to know. What you find out might hurt you. So maybe you shouldn’t know that thing, or read that book, or listen to this lecture.’ The safety of ignorance.