It’s that time of year again. When the tar seal winces and lounge suites start looking nervous. Yes, the students are trickling back into town, wandering the streets brown and skinny − without the lard overcoat they’ll have by November after 10 months of burgers and binge-drinking − buying sheets at Briscoes with Mum and cleaning the mould off their bedroom ceilings with a sweet, pathetic house-proudness soon to vanish. Not sure what the clothing trend is this year. Last year it was denim cut-offs and stripy t-shirts, in the past it’s been Ugg boots, mini-skirts, Dayglow orange spray tans. Blonde hair remains a staple.

Whatever you think of the student population of Dunedin, and, as Karl Du Fresne wrote in the Dominion Post, “the campus produces self-righteous finger wagers the way Ethiopia produces marathon runners (especially amongst the non-academic residents of the city)” – these entitled millennials aren’t super-sensitive souls. Every year without fail Critic will produce a guide to date rape or something equally sensational and international students will Skype home in a state of shock after walking past the ambulance-tipping Children of the Corn debauchery.

Not so overseas, where students are far more serious, if not very sensible: witness the recent successful campaign to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes from Oxford, led by a Rhodes Scholar and smacking of Orwellian ‘blackwhite’ in its determination to purify the past lest it offend the sensitivities of the present. If racism and brutality in the name of colonialism are reasons for statue toppling, then Winston Churchill must surely be next. “I hate Indians,” he said, blaming them for the Bengal famine (which he caused by diverting grain to his soldiers), claiming they were starving because they “breed like rabbits.”

Stupid in the extreme is the notion you can give history a bit of a spit and polish, scrub the smuts off its more famous characters and restore them to a bright and shiny innocence, or pull them from their plinths to erase their murkier contributions. Yet something even stupider, bordering the surreal, is happening at America’s universities, where in the name of emotional well-being, students are demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like, subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.

Law students at Harvard have asked professors not to teach rape law or use the word ‘violate’ (as in that violates the law) lest it cause distress, and liberal arts lecturers are expected to issue ‘trigger warnings’ before teaching courses that might elicit a strong emotional response, for example Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, which describes racial violence and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (misogyny, physical abuse and sentimental rich men), so that students who have previously been victimised by racism or domestic abuse can choose to avoid works which might ‘trigger’ a reoccurrence of past trauma.

As Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt wrote in their September 2015 cover story for The Atlantic, ‘The Coddling of the American Mind,’ this is disastrous for both education and mental health. Rather than a resurgence of political correctness, this goes much further than the ‘herstory’ days of the 80s and 90s, towards presuming an extraordinary fragility in young people, nurturing hyper-sensitivity by making campuses into ‘safe spaces’ that police unintentional slights, place warnings on classic literature and encourage students to develop an extra-thin skin − just before they go out into the real world.

Lukianoff and Haidt believe that, because there is a broad ban on ‘blaming the victim,’ it is considered unreasonable to question the validity of someone’s emotional state, meaning ‘I’m offended’ is an unbeatable trump card; leading to what The Atlantic’s editor calls an ‘offendedness sweepstakes.’ Once you find something hateful, it is easy to believe, in a world of emotional feebletons, that you know how others will react and that their reactions might be devastating. Preventing that devastation then becomes a moral obligation for the whole community. But pressuring professors to avoid the subject of rape law in order to protect your fellow students from potential distress is comparable, as Jeannie Suk puts it in her essay for the New Yorker, “to trying to teach a medical student training to be a surgeon who fears he’ll become distressed if he sees or handles blood.”

Universities should always be about exploring the limitless freedom of the human mind, a place to try ideas on for size and listen, in fairness and freedom, to the other side. But don’t worry. Otago students being some of the freeist in the world, I think they’ll be OK.

AuthorLisa Scott