Never let it be said that academics are not competitive. The race to be “more woker than you” is heating up. Lecturers from the University of Chester have tested the limits of our credulity with an unlikely Harry Potter trigger warning. Only to find they were outmatched by Northampton Uni, where George Orwell’s 1984 was put on the list of books that could cause psychological harm to students.
A warning about the dangers of having to ponder certain topics given to a thoughtcrime book? wow. But then came the Mail’s revelations over the weekend that the University of Leeds was adding trigger warnings to children’s novels. Stories like Black Beauty, with its “disturbing depictions of animal cruelty”.
Of course, it’s all rubbish. And worse than that. It’s fanciful and hypocritical. Fascinating? Trigger warnings only became a feature of US campus culture from 2015. But their accelerated adoption in Britain has become a badge of honor for institutions that want to appear “progressive”, regardless of the intellectual insolvency of the idea.
But the warnings are also hypocritical. Take Royal Holloway, which is part of the University of London. He issued a trigger warning on Oliver Twist. A spokesperson explained: “We recognize our responsibility to support the mental health and well-being of our students and content warnings are part of that.”
What a shame that the same university left my eldest daughter feeling unsupported and careless while studying there in 2018. That was the year her mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. When my daughter said she wanted to suspend her studies to be with her mother (who died five months later), the college demanded proof of my late wife’s illness. My daughter was laconically told to leave her hall of residence in a few days.
This is the same university that now feels it must protect students from a work of popular literature. Not just any novel, but a story that reminds us how golden many students’ lives are.
Oliver Twist is an orphan, rudely raised in the workhouse. Groat-fed and malnourished, he begs for ‘more’, only to be bested by Mr. Bumble, memorably played in Harry Secombe’s Oscar-winning 1968 film.
For Royal Holloway, just reading these fictional words – and potentially stirring up uncomfortable memories – is actually harmful. How different from Dickens’ real world of 200 years ago. A society in which tangible evil was omnipresent. Not just for women – think Nancy bludgeoned to death by her abusive partner Bill Sikes – but especially for young people.
Oliver leaves Mr. Bumble’s workhouse, narrowly escaping a life of child slavery as a chimney sweep. It was a dangerous occupation reserved for small children from the age of four and brought about by changing fashions. The growing demand for chimney sweeps was in response to the Victorian mania for taller and taller chimneys. (Royal Holloway’s magnificent Founder’s Building has no less than 700).
Fashions can therefore be fatal. Then literally. Now, metaphorically. Trigger warnings are brain dead. An American import turning English literature into a rich new source of work for those working at the heart of our culture wars. For academics, it’s wheezing. A way to say something new about old books.
But for students, it’s insidious. Trigger warnings seek to distance them from their history and ancestors. It is true that the past is another country, where things were done differently. But it is also true that human universals do not change. Cruelty, greed and love. It’s all there in Oliver Twist.