Sticks and Stones . . . and Trigger Warnings

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Why do we educate? To meet a demand? What kind of demand are we addressing? I’ve been thinking about what it means to educate as opposed to teach. And then as I read, yes, The Atlantic, there was an article  related to my ruminations. In “The Coddling of the American Mind,” Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt address the limitations that are being heaped on professors as they work to provide students with reliable and unabridged content in their classrooms. This is really a tangled and complex subject to discuss and cannot fully be addressed in a single blog post, but the core of the issue, to me, is this: Anyone able to access higher education (i.e., they have graduated from high school) is presumed to be old enough and academically experienced enough to engage in open discussion and debate in relation to specific subject matter that is voluntarily received (i.e., attending college is optional, not compulsory).

Even the required core courses can be dropped and taken another time or online if a student does not like the professor, classmates, or topics. So, is it really necessary, even logical, to put the onus on the professors to offer Trigger Warnings to students in case an individual has experienced some form of trauma that may or may not be triggered by a reading, discussion, or even word that no one not related closely to said student could possibly predict? Can the individual even know ahead of time that something may trigger him/her? If the student does know that they cannot tolerate certain subject matter, shouldn’t they be obligated to ask the professor the overall trajectory of the course’s subject matter? Isn’t that what the first day and the syllabus are for?

Now, for those who think in terms of difficult schedules and the student’s inability to simply drop or change classes without their entire academic or work schedule being dismantled or seriously affected, I ask: Isn’t life littered with such inconveniences and dilemmas? What happens if someone breaks their leg and their job entails moving around quite a bit?  Does this mean the employers change the nature of the job or the employee figures out how to do the job, take a leave of absence, or go on disability? The latter of course.

So, if a student cannot tolerate, for any reason, the nature of the subject matter in a course, the course does not need to change, the student must regroup and figure out how to work with the need for change. Like an employee, the student can always approach the professor or the Chair or the Dean and discuss possible alternatives. BUT if the alternatives change the nature of the learning outcomes for that course, the student then is not actually engaging in that class. This then means the student must meet their objectives for core coursework or major concentration by changing classes, period. The student must acknowledge that there is more personal work to be done before they can fully engage in their academic ambitions.

There is no law or rule that says one cannot return to school when more mature, secure, or confident. After all, putting education on your terms is not about treating learning like a commodity or creating a rigid protocol on what you are willing to encounter, but acknowledging that you have limitations to overcome and strengths to draw from and taking the responsibility to make the changes and adjustments needed rather than forcing very carefully considered and scheduled materials to be altered.

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How To Avoid Blogging: Have Something Difficult to Say

I’ve been looking at a pile of scribbled notes and dog-eared copies of The New Yorker for some time now. The issue of gun control has been weighing heavily on me, but I did not want to simply state my position or argue a point that many people may already have made many times over. It took a book on war to bring me around to what I’ve realized is the fundamental focus of my thoughts and my desire to write about this topic for other writers.

As many of you know, I’ve been very slowly going through How Yoga Works and reveling in the, well, revelations. My current mantra is “Plant the Seeds.” Yes, the title of one of my earlier blogs and directly related to that book. When I feel sad, or more importantly, overwhelmed and scared as I am prone to be, I pause my thoughts and say “plant the seeds.” Basically, just changing the thoughts but with the more important component of the new thought taking hold and growing into a more positive and fruitful behavior over the long run. I’m telling myself for the first time ever that nothing has to be the way I see it–at least not the negative. A challenge should be met, not eluded. OK, OK, enough, you get it already.

So, how do I go from How Yoga Works to addressing gun control as a moral and ethical requirement of us all? By reading Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam by Nick Turse. Big change in content, huh? I have a long-standing interest in history, especially war. It began more as an interest in how the areas we now call specific countries have formed and changed over the centuries in direct relation to the wars waged on or by them.

When I imagine myself as a draft-age male in 20th century America, I especially shudder at the prospect of going to Vietnam. I have no doubt that I would not have survived. At least not intact. The more I know of that war, the more horrified I am by the volume of atrocity unleashed in an offensive measure. I’m not saying bombing Hiroshima was a righteous act, but let’s agree that the U.S. would not have had to face making the choice if the Germans, then the Japanese did not swing first. Feel free to disagree. My point is that I cannot really comprehend the disbelief that people have over the fight against gun control when texts like Kill Anything show us how absolutely disinterested our government has been in our well being before and how many soldiers were not appalled or horrified by the orders they received to “kill ’em all.” When you note how much lower on the scale of value women, children, and the elderly have been than the average male, the surprise should be even less. Rape is a weapon of war and that has been wielded as readily as guns and grenades. Now, anatomy is one thing. It is what it is. But we can limit access to extraneous weapons and punish the inappropriate use of both. Hunting and lovemaking really cannot be compared equally with slaughter and rape.

My yoga teacher reminds me often that we all have our own universe to manage. Not that we stand alone, but we can only tend to our own world. We can plant the seeds and try to help others tend to their own goals so that all of us work in conscious harmony, but “we cannot plant the seeds for others” as she likes to say. I really understand now what “everyone in their own time” means. So, the discussion of each person’s rights is what I keep coming back to. How is one person’s rights more important than the safety and rights of the whole? Let’s face it, I have the right to live, don’t you? If restricting gun ownership and the type of guns allowed in public means I have a greater chance of exercising my right to live, then what is the problem?

If you are wondering what my world is like–how I’ve come to my perspective—I’ll tell you. My husband and I are gun owners. My husband hunts. We don’t buy meat raised in the realms of agribusiness, but we’ve not gotten to the point of becoming vegetarians. We would rather do without though than buy a cellophane and Styrofoam package of questionable quality meat from a questionable source. We plant the seeds of ethical farming even if we have not–yet–gotten to the point of sparing some animal lives. Still, I have no problem having to restrict access to our guns if it means preventing someone from accidentally or purposely harming others. I would love to have a central armory where we have to house our weapons and sign them out. If you are not planning on committing  a crime, what’s the problem with structure? Your freedom? I have freedom too: To live safely. Really, most of the NRA types sound like kindergarteners who were absent the day they learned about sharing and taking turns. I mean, really, you HAVE to have 100 rounds in an automatic or semiautomatic weapon at arm’s length? Are you sure you are not planning on committing a crime?

The April 15th issue of The New Yorker, has an article in the “The Talk of the Town” section entitled “Shots in the Dark.” The main question here about stepping up to the plate about gun control seems to be about taking risks. Who is willing to stretch out his/her neck and stand up for common sense and the right for the rest of us to live? Perhaps we are being abandoned because some members of Congress are not willing to risk losing their seats in the next election? Perhaps the Senate would not uphold any substantial changes. They like the cushy lives that playing with the pro-gun boys support. The column mentions Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s position (of all people!): ‘[A] right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose’ is not how the Second Amendment should be read. It does not “confer” this unadulterated view of absolute freedom. Last I checked, absolute freedom from control was anarchy or, no, wait, infancy.

Is this a new ideology for me? No. One of my most vivid memories of my freshman year of college is unwaveringly arguing against the whole of my first-semester composition class the point that I did not mind stricter criminal laws if that kept the predators and other unsavory characters behind bars longer. I did not mind having to watch my own behavior if that meant others stayed in jail. Yet, the rest of the class wanted as much freedom as possible even if it meant less jail time, or none, for offenders. Wow. I mean, I’m not saying we need to live in a police state, but why is it so hard to be responsible for your own actions and look out for your neighbor? And, no, I’m not saying our justice system isn’t damaged, but let’s work on the whole, not just give up and let everyone run amok.

Bottom line: I’m willing to curtail some of my own freedoms in order to ensure that the bad seeds are thwarted as much as possible. I’m also for reading as much about as many things as possible so that my range of knowledge includes seemingly disparate subjects such as spirituality and war crimes.

Of course, nothing will end violence, but everything can be done to limit it and access to its most effective tools. No one can plant the seeds for cruel, troubled, or misguided souls, but we have to do our best to keep these people limited to small container gardens until they are ready to do their share. We don’t need a whole field of perennials setting the wrong seeds on the wind.

Themes of Death and Violence: Teaching Children’s and YA Literature

After the Harry Potter phenomenon, but before The Hunger Games was reviewed in The New York Times, I decided to teach a course entitled Death and Violence in Children’s Literature. Catchy right? The goal was not to sensationalize these themes, but address both death and violence as dominant presences in much of modern children’s’ and YA lit. Not that either were missing before, but often a death or a violent event or even a war were what moved the plot along and got the character out of their comfort zone and into the path of self discovery. This could be as profound an odyssey as “the hero’s journey” that leads one to his/her (usually his) rightful place in the world. It could be as simple as the loss causing a new destiny or path to be followed as we observe the failures and accomplishments of a fellow human being.

But what about violence and death as a daily fact of life? This is not to affect the setting. It is the setting. The plot is not moved along within these contexts, it depends upon them. I was not talking about gratuitous violence either or otherworldly (hence, at a safe distance) acts of subversion; this is rural, suburban, urban, today, tomorrow, and who-knows-until-when. There is no assistance from the author in finding comfort or hope when you find that the last page has arrived and your hope for a “psych! it’s all OK,” does not appear. Nor does there appear to be a sequel to offer succor.

So many people have already discussed the desensitization of everyone, not just kids, to violence. It has permeated all aspects of media to the point of being expected. Nonviolent, cerebral works are now sold as innovative and “thoughtful.” Ugh. I am guilty of succumbing to the anesthetization of repeated exposure. When I saw my first episode of Law & Order’s Special Victims’ Unit, I was genuinely traumatized by both the subject matter and that it was presented as entertainment. Who could write such terrible things? Who could let their kids act in these parts? But, as it was going to be on rather often (I was not in charge of the clicker, but that is another story), guess what? Ready for the surprise? I got used to it. NO! Yes I did! No, really you knew that from the beginning right? We are all there. I’m honestly disgusted with myself for becoming so complacent about such subject matter. I won’t watch it anymore. No, I’m not advocating that it be boycotted. The cops care and they save people in it. It’s about salvation, not celebration. But still . . .

When I developed my course, I chose books such as Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now, with its theme of childhood survival in a time of war and its characters a band of very eccentric and wholly disturbing youngsters. They are disturbing for their individualism and ability to witness, experience, avoid, and survive many perils that come with a lack of protection from adults of any sort or failed protection by the requisite guardians. There is even incest presented in a symbiotic essential-to-emotional-and-spiritual well being relationship. Try to get that one past the school boards.

I used Dead on Town Line by Leslie Connor, a free-verse poem about a young girl killed by a jealous classmate. Beautiful imagery. Even in its most violent moments. There is a lyrical dreamy passing of the ghost from living experience to simple observation and an empathy for the living that emphasizes the loss of such a being.

I’ll not belabor the texts used. The point is that I see these themes as less about callous or jaded audiences, but more to the point of a need for us all to realize that life dominated by these two is not impossible or as unlikely as we hope. No, it’s not a polemic about global warming or war in general, although it would help. I see these types of texts as excellent experience for the reader and writer in approaches to particular themes and character development. I think of them as serving a kind of purpose that Sinclair’s The Jungle, Orwell’s Animal Farm, or even To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee have. No, these current authors are not necessarily of the caliber that I believe Sinclair or Lee are. You may not feel their work is as as profound and erudite as these worthy members of our canon. But they address certain truths either directly or indirectly that show us human nature and patterns as they are and could be. We observe, like Lee’s Scout, through young eyes and hearts and learn how to survive or perish as is our lot.