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Is Reading Greek Mythology Toxic For Students?

05/14/2015 10:18 am ET | Updated May 14, 2016

That's the buzz at Columbia University, where students published an editorial complaining about reading Greek myths in one of their classes. They said in part:

Ovid's "Metamorphoses" is a fixture of Lit Hum, but like so many texts in the Western canon, it contains triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities in the classroom. These texts, wrought with histories and narratives of exclusion and oppression, can be difficult to read and discuss as a survivor, a person of color, or a student from a low-income background.

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I would expect Columbia students to write somewhat better and not misuse the word "wrought," and also to have italicized the title of Ovid's long poetic work, which retells Greek myths, rather than using quotation marks of any kind. Those things aside, what are they doing in that class? Why are they reading any texts in the Western canon if they feel the way they do?

I was in love with Greek mythology when I was in elementary school, and I came from an extremely low-income background. These amazing stories fired my imagination, and though I wasn't a person of color, I was a minority as a Jew in a majority-Christian country. Worse than that, I lived in a house steeped in horror and trauma because my parents were Holocaust survivors. Greek mythology offered me escape, not oppression. It didn't exclude me; it offered me wings. Anything that was different and exciting gave me a pathway to freedom.

Is there any book anywhere that couldn't be in need of a trigger warning? Think about Twilight or Lord of the Rings or The Great Gatsby. As blogger Susannah Breslin puts it so well:

In reality, trigger warnings are unrealistic. They are the dream-child of a fantasy in which the unknown can be labeled, anticipated, and controlled. What trigger warnings promise -- protection -- does not exist. The world is simply too chaotic, too out-of-control for every trigger to be anticipated, avoided, and defused.

What would be helpful is for professors to do what many I know already do: ask students at the beginning of a class to inform them privately if they have any issues that might interfere with classroom learning and proceed from there. But blanket warnings on syllabi are a waste of time and verge on the ridiculous.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery, which you can find on Amazon.