It’s been many years since I completed my studies at New York City’s Columbia University, but I still occasionally read the student newspaper, The Spectator, to get a sense of what’s going on.
Columbia is a great place – it was then, and it is now (despite some faculty members’ reprehensible attitude to Israel) – and as I read The Spec, as we called it back then, I often grow wistful about the world I left when we moved to Israel almost two decades ago.
Recently, however, an article in The Spec reminded me not of what a great educational experience Columbia was (though it certainly was), but how much healthier Israeli society is (at least in some ways) than its American counterpart. The column “Our identities matter in core classrooms” was about the increasingly discussed issue of “trigger warnings” that students are demanding in college courses.
What’s a trigger warning? Here is the language of four Columbia students: “During the week spent on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the class was instructed to read the myths of Persephone and Daphne, both of which include vivid depictions of rape and sexual assault. As a survivor of sexual assault, [a] student described being triggered while reading such detailed accounts of rape throughout the work. However, the student said her professor focused on the beauty of the language and the splendor of the imagery when lecturing on the text. As a result, the student completely disengaged.”
So, what do the students want? They want to be warned. About scenes with sexual violence. About scenes with racist overtones. About scenes with misogynistic language. They want to be prepared emotionally for the trauma that reading great works of literature can entail.
The demand is becoming so widespread that The New York Times actually devoted space to an entire debate on the subject (“Restraint of expression on college campuses”) a year ago.
As I read the new column in The Spec, though, I was reminded of several moments at Shalem College, here in Jerusalem, where the intellectual atmosphere is entirely different. And healthier. I remembered, for example, a moment in October 2013, when I sat in on a class in which our students were reading The Iliad. They came to a war scene in one of the last of The Iliad’s 24 books, and one student remarked, “The Greek reader had to know that Homer’s description of war here isn’t realistic. This is an airbrushed description of war; this isn’t what war is like.”
Suddenly, it was silent in the room.
Twenty-five students, sitting with an ancient Greek text translated into Hebrew, sat immobile. I looked at their faces, especially the faces of the men. That seemingly innocent comment about Homer’s description of war not being realistic had taken them to a very different place. They had been transported – to a different setting, far from books, far from the calm and security of a college classroom, far from the rarefied world of Homeric texts.
The professor, a fabulous teacher, knew better than to say anything. He allowed the silence to persist – like a mist that needed time to clear – and then, in a soft tone, said nothing about the comment and simply continued the discussion.
I listened carefully to what followed.
There were people there, I knew, who had been traumatized by what they’d experienced in the army. (A few months later, one of those students actually received a medal for extraordinary bravery.) There were people who had lost friends.
Yet there was no sense that these students wanted to be protected from the texts. Their experiences had made them stronger, not more fragile. Their past, painful as it had been, did not lead them to shy away from reading Homer – rather, it enriched their reading of The Iliad.
From what they had lived through, they learned that their lives – their hopes, the things they dread, their dreams and nightmares – made them part of a conversation that has been unfolding for thousands of years.
They understand that the reason we read Homer, and Bible, and Talmud, and modern literature, at Shalem College is to weave their pasts – the pleasant as well as the challenging – into the tapestry of what great and majestic cultures have been saying about these issues for centuries.
We shared with our students at Shalem this newfound American demand for “trigger warnings,” and they were simply perplexed. What’s the point of learning, they asked, if we’re going to shy away from the issues that are most critical? Why read these texts if, precisely when they evoke powerful emotions, we’re going to hunker down in fear? It was the reaction I’d expected – and the reaction I’d hoped they’d have.
This is a country in which it is easy to worry about the kids we’re producing.
Too many of them are too boisterous, too many of them don’t know how to stand in line, how to board a plane politely, how to listen to those with whom they disagree and respect those whose life-choices are different from their own. All true. But there is a slice of Israeli society, it behooves us to recall, that has internalized the stressful and often frightening reality of Israeli life in order to become deeper, more thoughtful, more nuanced and more open.
The world we cherish will not be preserved by running from conflict or shielding ourselves from the uncomfortable.
There is evil in the world, and too often, the West is unprepared to call that evil what it is. There are forces that wish to destroy everything we stand for, and too often, the West is unprepared to stand up to them, to draw lines in the sand, to make it clear we believe in certain values, in particular principles, and we’ll sacrifice for them.
We live in a world bereft of Churchills and Roosevelts. Yet we also live in a country that has produced an extraordinary young generation. We cannot yet know precisely how, but there’s every reason to believe that when people look back on what saved Israel in the early part of the 21st century, it will have been in large measure a generation of young people not afraid to face their fears, a generation willing to face their pasts.
It will likely have been due to a generation of Israelis who understand that it is only when we are disturbed, shaken and unsettled that we are poised to do truly great things. The writer is senior vice president, Koret Distinguished Fellow and chair of the core curriculum at Jerusalem’s Shalem College, Israel’s first liberal arts college. His latest book is Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul; he is now writing a concise history of the State of Israel.