Paul Prather

Paul Prather: No trigger warnings, safe places or drapes in this university

The mural in Memorial Hall shows scenes of state history, including black workers in a tobacco field, black musicians playing for white dancers, and a Native American with a tomahawk.
The mural in Memorial Hall shows scenes of state history, including black workers in a tobacco field, black musicians playing for white dancers, and a Native American with a tomahawk. mcornelison@herald-leader.com

Good morning, unmolded ladies and gentlemen.

Welcome to Professor Prather’s English 200: Survey of Western Literature.

I hope will you find this semester enlightening. I dare hope that, 10 years from now, you will remember this course and your humble instructor.

I hope you will look back and say, “That old pot-bellied geezer actually helped me learn about literature — and about life.”

I know. Not likely. But a guy can aspire, can’t he?

Given that I’m both tenured and within a stone’s throw of retirement, not to mention dotage, I plan to teach this course in a manner that serves you best, without regard to the prevailing conceits of modern higher education.

You have your syllabus before you.

You will note the reading list includes no trigger warnings about possibly offensive or emotionally disturbing material. That’s because you will find nearly everything on the list offensive or emotionally disturbing. The list is just one extended trigger warning.

From Ovid’s Metamorphoses to Shakespeare’s Othello to Twain’s Huckleberry Finn to Morrison’s Beloved, and at various stops in between, you will encounter disturbing thoughts, language and deeds: incest, rape, spouse abuse, theism, atheism, racism, sexism, classism, imperialism, socialism, the n-word, the f-word, the s-word and murder.

You will likewise encounter courage, grace, wisdom, forgiveness, redemption, nobility of spirit, enlightenment, faithfulness, selflessness and growth.

Also, for the record, there will be no safe places here where you can retreat from ideas and people you find insensitive or unsympathetic. We will be hanging no drapes, real or imaginary, over works of art, be they beautiful or repulsive.

If you stay, you absolutely will be offended. Write that down in your notes.

Part of my duty is to offend you with all possible dispatch.

Here, you will be expected — nay, required — to take your pet beliefs and brittle feelings and sacred cultural cows, and fling them against the stucco walls of this hallowed hall. And once those ideologies, feelings and cows have splatted on said wall, your fellow students will most likely walk by and spit on the remains.

This will be painful for you. It also will be wondrous.

You can thank me later. Visit me when I’m lying beneath four blankets in some railed bed in a dreary nursing home and say, “Thank you, Professor Prather! You helped me become an educated adult!” I grant you permission in advance to name your first child after me.

You see, any education worth having offends us. It makes us question ourselves. It makes our brains hurt. It makes us mad. Occasionally it makes us cry.

It makes us speak aloud truths we’ve held to be unassailable, only to hear others assail them. It causes us to assail those truths ourselves, then defend them again, and finally decide to burn them on the pyre of foolish speculations or rely on them forever as guiding beacons.

Education equips us to know not only what we really believe, but why we believe it and why it’s worth believing.

If you’re not offended at this university at least once a week, you need to transfer to a better school. Run. Because this school isn’t doing its job. You’re not getting an education. You’re just paying a great deal of money for very bad therapy.

All right, my sophomores, let’s move on to our first assignment.

I want you to choose the hot-button issue about which you feel most passionate. It might be your Christian faith. It might be your atheism. It might be your feelings against abortion or in favor of a woman’s right to choose. It might be against Middle Easterners moving to the United States or in favor of admitting thousands of Syrian refugees to our shores.

Write me five pages, double-spaced, that lay out your position and that prove you’re right. Cite history and statistics and philosophers, if you like. Quote the Bible, if it helps.

Once you’ve turned in those papers, we’ll embark on assignment two: an essay in which you demonstrate why everything you told me in the first essay was malarkey.

To do this, you might need to read books or articles by writers whose worldview you despise. You might have to actually go talk with people on the other side. What you’ll find is that your opponents believe what they believe for reasons —reasons that, to them, seem more valid than your reasons for your beliefs.

In this second essay, if you’re a devout Christian, you will convince me there is no God and that all religion is a grand hoax perpetrated by the powerful against the delusional. If you’re an atheist, you will leave me frantic to find the nearest tent revival, fling myself face-down on the sawdust floor and give my wicked heart to Jesus. And so on.

No hedging, either. If you don’t convince me, you fail the assignment. In this class, you can still fail. That’s another of my gifts to you.

Ideally, these essays, taken together, should help you learn to hold two conflicting ideas in your head at the same time, help you see the holes in your own tenets and help you better understand folks whose experiences differ from yours.

Once you’ve accomplished those impressive feats, we might be ready to encounter great literature. We might be ready to learn valuable lessons about the world, and about ourselves.

Good luck, young scholars. I await your gratitude.

Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You can email him at pratpd@yahoo.com.

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