Regular Bacon contributor Laura Cooper and husband John have spent much of the fall “coming to grips with the (happy, but still!) fact that our boys are really growing up. It can’t be said at all that we have small children. We find ourselves almost frantically attentive to the job of making them good grown-ups, knowing our time is running out (just imagine how much fun that is for THEM!). But it’s also letting us recall and reconstruct what grown-up life was and will be again for us, too. Kind of a rich, amazing time.”
To that end, she and John “chucked our pre-holiday to-do list last week and ran away to Miami, where we had three wonderful, lazy days of NOT rearing boys. Bliss! And a convertible even!”
I’m not sure I believe that Laura spent much time being lazy. I know she must have been glowing with the knowledge that she had a guest column coming out in the Washington Post this Monday! Check it out while you take a deep cleansing breath: “Parents: We Need to Get a Grip on Our Own College Application Anxiety”.
She’s thinking a lot about college and life beyond, for her boys and for herself. In today’s post, she thinks about what it means to live a good – and grown-up – life.
Ever watch super-high-octane action movies? Play pinball? Or ride the thrilling haunted-house roller-coaster at your favorite amusement park? Then I bet you’ve seen this sign: “Flashing lights may cause seizures in some viewers.”
That’s a trigger warning. It lets unusually sensitive audience members choose to avoid an experience that might trigger a physically harmful seizure reaction. Sensible and humane, right?
Now consider this. Students at a growing number of U.S. colleges are demanding “trigger warnings” on school assignments and classroom activities that might cause them to experience upsetting thoughts and feelings about hard topics. The Great Gatsby? [TW: suicide, domestic abuse, and graphic violence]. Mrs. Dalloway? [TW: suicide]. The Merchant of Venice? [TW: anti-semitism].
Online, reliably, the movement’s even sillier. Which topics should carry trigger warnings? Try blood, insects, alcohol, pregnancy, bullying, the rapper Chris Brown, and – I’m not kidding – certain plot lines on Downton Abbey.
To be fair, the Trigger Warning movement first targeted graphic classroom material (and online chat topics) that might foreseeably trigger actual post-traumatic stress symptoms in those who have suffered rape or battlefield trauma. Fair enough. That’s sensible and humane, like strobe lights and epilepsy.
But at Oberlin College, administrators urged professors to put trigger warnings on all class material that might “disrupt a student’s learning” or “cause trauma,” including anything that depicted “racism, classism, sexism . . . and other issues of privilege and oppression.”
Never mind, by the way, that sexist privileged men once barred women from prestigious universities altogether – including law schools – because they claimed we were too fragile, and our intellects too tender, to grapple with the full range of human experience found in the traumatic real world. As Justice Bradley wrote for the U.S. Supreme Court in 1872, ruling that the Constitution didn’t require States to let women join the Bar: “the natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for the practice of law.”
Is it really progress for college students to demand the right to exempt themselves from the trauma of serious adult discourse, for the same reasons?
So the college Trigger Warning movement just makes me sad. How did it become hip to be so intellectually fragile, so in need of protection? So unfit for grown-up life?
If that bothers you too, I offer an antidote: Stoner, by John Williams.
Published in 1965, Stoner is a novel for readers determined to be full-fledged adults. It tells the life story of William Stoner, a dirt-poor Missouri farm boy who, in 1910, enters the University of Missouri to earn an Agriculture degree. Stoner moves in near the college with his mother’s distant cousins, where he gets meager room and board in exchange for harsh farm labor morning and night.
Stoner’s life transforms when he takes a required survey course in English literature. The enigmatic professor prods his farm-boy student until he opens his heart to Shakespeare’s sonnets, and then to philosophy and history, Latin and Greek, Chaucer and beyond. Stoner abandons Ag school, earns his BA and Master’s in literature, and then stays on, as World War I erupts, to teach English and work on his doctorate. Decades later, he dies just days after teaching a last class in that same University, a man who’s spent his life immersed in the literature that first captured his heart.
Sound idyllic? Well, novels about university life tend to follow one of a few well-traveled paths. They can be funny and wry, like David Lodge’s Nice Work. Or they’re dark and eventful, like Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim or Philip Roth’s The Human Stain. Stoner is something else again: in outward form, at least, Stoner’s life is a relentless, largely joyless march into disappointment and grinding obscurity.
He marries an unstable, spoiled woman. She spends their long, unhappy marriage thwarting him emotionally, and alienating him from their only child. At work, the power-hungry department chair becomes Stoner’s lifelong enemy, blocking his promotion and crippling his scholarship. Stoner does find true love – real, true love – with a young woman scholar, but poisonous faculty politics destroy that, too.
Indeed, John Williams opens the novel with the fact that, after 46 years at the University, Stoner has died without making any kind of mark that anyone would ever recognize. His “colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all[.]”
And yet, twenty years after publishing Stoner, and nearing the end of his own career, John Williams called Stoner a “real hero,” a man who “had a very good life.” How can that be?
Maybe it’s because William Stoner is, at the core, a true grown-up. He finds the things in life that he can love – his teaching, his reading, his daughter, his one great affair – and he loves and tends them despite the disappointments and frustrations, the quite brutal traumas, that crowd in with them. He loves and tends them even when they fail him, and reject him, and even when they bring him little more than the plain long years of keeping them company. He digs in and hangs on; he endures, and he does his job. In John Williams’ later words, Stoner “kept the faith.”
Reading Stoner isn’t easy. Williams writes with such clarity, with such a cool and unclouded gaze, that much of Stoner’s life is painful to watch. And yes, reading this novel will surely trigger upsetting thoughts, if you’re paying attention at all.
But if you make it through to the end, to Stoner’s own final days and hours, you might find yourself sharing the state of rhythmic, patient being – not resolution, not revelation, just patient being – that John Williams grants Stoner at the last.
A gift to you, from one determined grown-up to another.
* * *
If this post leaves you wanting to read more from Laura, please check out these posts at her own blog, NoRealPlot.com, and at BaconOnTheBookshelf:
Excellent post and Op-Ed piece. I think John Williams is in the zeitgeist these days. Thank you, Laura!
[…] https://www.bacononthebookshelf.com/2014/11/20/warning-grown-up-life-may-trigger-upsetting-thoughts/ […]
Wow. A great, grown-up post for us all, and a piece in “The Washington Post”. Heady stuff!
Thank you, Laura.