- - Thursday, September 29, 2016

Some things are too awful to think about — war, disease, a failed romance, the prospect of another Clinton in the White House. Where can it all end?

Tragedies usually happen only on college campuses, and this concerns responsible presidents, chancellors, deans and administrators, and in England one university is taking steps to do something about it. Such campus compassion is likely to spread to schools on this side of the Atlantic. Contagious diseases, like Superman, easily leap over oceans in a single bound. Academics are particularly concerned lest certain “triggers,” often pulled by well-meaning but careless professors, inflict damage on delicate psyches.

Archaeology students at University College of London, regarded (perhaps inaccurately) as a cut above schools of barbering, embalming and flower-arranging, now have the right to leave the classroom with neither demerit nor damage to grade, when the classroom discussion turns to unpleasant topics, such as digging up old bones.

“Trigger alerts” are already common on many campuses, both in the United States and in certain European countries, but usually the professor merely warns that something bad is coming — perhaps an alert that wounded soldiers sometimes bleed or that puppies have been known to puddle the floor — but University College breaks new ground.

Students in the course called “Archaeologies of Modern Conflict” will henceforth not only be told that something upsetting is coming, “even traumatizing,” but will be permitted to leave the room until the professor moves on to something more pleasant, like lunch. If they feel particular stress, scholars can leave “without penalty,” and catch up later by copying the notes of another student, presumably with the permission of the other student.

And it gets worse. “Some students have been in the armed forces,” says Gabriel Moshenska, the lecturer who coordinates courses on how “the truth” about how conflicts in the new century can be traced to ancient times. The grandchildren of men who won glory and acclaim at El Alamein and across North Africa and at Pegasus Bridge on Normandy beach, may suffer “psychological trauma” by accounts of the resurfacing of older bones.

No one has complained about the content of one of his lectures, he concedes, but you never know. The prescribed alert is “precautionary.”

Elizabeth Gloyn, a lecturer on the classics, warned students who feel an attack of the vapors coming on before her lecture on the Roman poet Ovid can feel free to leave because the talk may descend to a discussion of “domestic violence and other nasty things.”

Not every academic is on board. “This is health and safety going mad again,” says Chris McGovern, chairman of a counter-advocacy group called Campaign for Read Education. “We are back to an overprotective nanny state. If you sign up for a course on the archaeology of battlefields or the poems of Ovid, you should know what you’re going to get.” That’s pretty radical stuff on any campus.

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