The trigger warning we need: “College is a scam meant to perpetuate the 1 percent”

The trigger warning we need: "Borrowing to attend an American college may be hazardous to your dreams"

Topics: College, trigger warnings, Higher education, 1 percent, classism, tal fortgang, princeton mom, Harvard, ,

The trigger warning we need: "College is a scam meant to perpetuate the 1 percent" (Credit: mjbs via iStock)

Is there a greater gift to the hack editorialist than the American university and its taste for sensitivity and euphemism? I doubt it. What wonderful opportunities it presents to wax indignant: Shrinking-violet rich kids in a lather about patriarchy; tenured professors scheming to drain the English language of its animal spirits. It’s a never-ending saga of privilege run amok, which of course allows our op-ed moralists to completely overlook the real scandal on campus—the corporatization of the university, a development that has plunged an entire generation into inescapable debt but that is somehow less visible to the columnist than the latest political-correctness fantasia.

But then comes a campus outrage so gloriously stupid, so fantastically self-negating, that the prof-bashers miss its true significance. Last week, The New York Times described a push at a handful of fancy colleges to require “trigger warnings” on class syllabi, which would alert sensitive students to reading materials that might cause them psychic distress. Note that “trigger warnings” have been actually applied at no college campus to any literary classic. The mere suggestion here and there is all that was needed to make this 100-proof pundit bait. One after another,the columnists piled on, mocking the hypersensitive and moaning about what kids these days have come to.

However, when I read the Times story—especially the part where trigger warnings are being proposed for any text that bears hints of something called “classism”—I felt strangely euphoric. I’d finally discovered a PC campus trend I could get behind.

“Warning labels!” I cried. “Classism! Great leaping Christ, that’s it!”

Yes! Elite university students must be warned about “classism”! Not on course syllabi or the cover of a book as though it’s comsymp lit or something. No, they need to see it in big red letters inscribed on those elite universities themselves — stamped on every tuition bill and financial aid form and diploma they produce, spelled out in the quadrangle pavement, flashing from a neon sign above every dormitory so no one can miss it:



“Warning: This place exists to enforce class distinctions.”

Perhaps those universities exist to educate, too. Perhaps professors here and there still concern themselves with whether students understand epic poems and differential equations. But that stuff is incidental. The university’s real purpose, as just about every modern college entrance guide will confirm, is to make graduates wealthy. Not too many employers really care what you studied there, or how well you did; they only care that you got in and that you got a diploma, our society’s one-and-only ticket into the middle class. Graduate from college and you have a chance of joining life’s officer corps. Quit after high school and it doesn’t matter how well you know your Nietzsche; you will probably spend the rest of your days as a corporal.

This power over admission to the bourgeoisie is the reason why tuition goes up constantly even as the university successfully transforms professors into low-wage freelancers (the subject of last week’s column)—because what those professors teach doesn’t matter. This is also why people who fake their college degrees often lead long and successful corporate lives without being detected—because the stuff you actually learn to get a liberal arts degree isn’t important in the corporate world. Only the diploma itself has real meaning in the marketplace, and only the marketplace has real meaning in America. This is a situation that clearly requires highly visible warnings, and lots of them.

The “classism” warnings must go beyond college, too: There are the professional schools—law, medicine, etc.—which by definition produce society’s upper class. And just imagine the wailing and the trauma that are no doubt “triggered” by every single lecture at the business school, where the subordination of one class to another is the pedagogical starting point.

So yes: Flash that “classism” warning like a beacon for everyone to see. Let the world know that behind those ivied walls they are teaching tomorrow’s elite the folkways of the One Percent. Maybe we can take it a step further and string yellow “classism” warning tape around the perimeter of the economics department, which in many places exists in order to prove that what’s good for the wealthy is what’s good for the world. And what shall we do with all the campus lecture halls where Richard Florida has demanded that we grovel before the “Creative Class”? EPA superfund sites, perhaps?

Just think of the salutary effect such “classism” warnings would have on the elite colleges themselves, where students are in a frenzy of self-love brought on by the success of certain very rich graduates—success which everyone attributes to college-certified merit, of course. Warnings would work wonders at a princeling factory like Princeton University, where an alumna recently encouraged female students to be sure to marry other Princetonians if they want to prosper and where a student recently wrote a much-discussed essay indignantly denying that he enjoyed “privileges” of any kind. “Classism” alerts would also be useful at that oligarchy prep school known as Harvard, which was widely celebrated last week for being the world-champion billionaire-producing university.

Then again, maybe a “classism” warning isn’t exactly what the rest of us need. For many of us college is not some storybook court of honor where we get promoted to white-collar knighthood, but a straight-up debt mill. For many of the students I am describing here, the standard trajectory of higher ed has been reversed—instead of lifting them up, their degrees drag them down. To go to college, many of them have had to make a monumentally risky financial decision, and warning labels seem very much in order.

We are not talking here about injured feelings or a poem that might trigger post-traumatic stress disorder, but a quantifiable material harm: the choking off of a young person’s life chances. Given the happy way our leaders like to burble about college these days, maybe what we need here is the bluntest kind of consumer warning label, like those found on cigarette packages—the kind meant to shock you into understanding that a product’s public image is completely at odds with its actual effects. How about:

“Borrowing to attend an American college may be hazardous to your dreams.”

Or better, stamped in brilliant fuchsia on the loan documents themselves:

“Sign these and be screwed.”

Thomas Frank

Thomas Frank is a Salon politics and culture columnist. His many books include "What's The Matter With Kansas," "Pity the Billionaire" and "One Market Under God." He is the founding editor of The Baffler magazine.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...