The past few years have seen one controversy after another relating to freedom of speech on college campuses: speakers canceled or even physically attacked or chased away by mobs; Halloween costumes preemptively derided as insensitive; entrenched debates about the necessity or frivolousness of “microaggressions,” “trigger warnings,” and “safe spaces.” Many of the discussions surrounding these issues have been characterized by vitriol—as though some kind of corrosive substance were eating away at our ability to carry on a civil dialogue in the classroom, just as it is at the national level—or condescension. The University of Chicago got into hot water in the fall of 2016 for the latter approach, when a welcome letter from the dean of students to the class of 2020 praised the incoming freshmen in one paragraph for having selected a rigorous academic program, and then patronized them in the next by warning them not to expect any intellectual coddling. The dean was right to frown upon trends that would proscribe free speech and free inquiry, but one could never guess how or why from reading his letter. Its tone is impatient enough to suggest that those who would demand such accommodations do it because they hate free inquiry, and because they possess weak minds and constitutions.
In my experience, it doesn’t help to assume the worst of persons with whom you disagree (or hope to teach). Very often you simply don’t know what’s informing their views. I spent my entire first year of teaching at a college aghast at the almost complete lack of correct MLA citations in my students’ essays—literally thousands of works cited, maybe four of them correctly. My second year, I asked the students—who were also members of the class of 2020 at the United States Military Academy—if high schools still taught MLA citations. No, they told me, for four years they had just been instructed to use an online "citation generator," but never shown how to check its work. The problem was not weak-mindedness or a lazy constitution, but a simple misunderstanding. Once we went back to basics, with an introduction to the title pages of books and the information that can be gleaned there, citation issues went away. So let’s give young people the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps the problem is not that they dislike free inquiry and strength of mind, but that many have never been exposed to these things because they are not prioritized by the College Board. Let’s suppose too that if you teach them in the way they should go, they might be receptive.
One segment of society that doesn’t have the luxury of not knowing what strength of mind entails are survivors of trauma. They are strong because they have to be: they’ve been hit by a kind of moral-psychological Mack truck and yet still walk among us. In the throes of trauma, however, survivors don’t always recognize how strong they are, because as you can imagine, that sort of impact produces some moral-psychological broken bones, and at times they’re liable to feel like they’re just limping or crawling hideously along. I know because I am one, and I vividly remember what it was like to limp hideously along, and then to learn to walk again (still metaphorically), and eventually to run. For me, that whole sad, slow, frequently maddening, and ultimately triumphant process was inextricably bound up with my experiences as a reader of books and a participant—as both student and teacher—in the liberal arts. One book, through no fault of its own, ushered me into the world of trauma while I was in graduate school in 2011. Since then, dozens more have guided me, not backward but forward, to health and joy. And all along the way I have pondered the connections between my reading life and my life life. A former advisor and New Yorker writer who heard parts of this story in 2013 was even more troubled by the aftermath of trauma and the way it can warp one’s mind than he was by the abuse I had endured itself. It seemed particularly unjust, he said, because I had always struck him as “quietly sane.” I’m delighted to finally put that blurb to use now: “‘Quietly sane’—the New Yorker.”
For all of these reasons—my experiences as a student from kindergarten through a doctorate, my four years of experience teaching undergraduates, my own trauma history, and the quiet sanity I fought to regain and keep—I feel peculiarly qualified, and indeed compelled, to weigh in on the current issues surrounding trauma and teaching. Perhaps my observations about books and life, what harms and what heals, will be of some use to parents or professors, or counselors or chaplains, or liberals or conservatives, or anyone simply trying to understand what all the fuss is about.