Monday, April 15, 2024
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Chris McGovern: UCL warns its fragile little petals that studying the past can be disturbing


In her recent interview with The Conservative Woman, Joanna Williams warned of the dangers of wrapping young people in cotton wool. As co-author of the Why Academic Freedom matters (Civitas 2016), Williams argues that we need to move away from “the idea that children and young people are fragile…We need to stop treating children like they are made of glass and in need of constant supervision.”

How apposite that she alludes to the glass-like mental fragility of many youngsters; a consequence of adults, including parents and academics, being over protective. She is right, of course, and, what is more, this new narcissism comes with royal approval for, surely, what we are witnessing is a renaissance of the ‘glass delusion’ made famous by King Charles VI of France (1380-1422) – “the mad”.

At times the monarch was so convinced that he was made of glass that he used to wrap himself in blankets to prevent his bottom from shattering. He had iron rods sewn into his clothing to prevent his body from breaking. When asked as to why he was frequently motionless he replied that even one wrong move could shatter him. To be honest he was not much of an opponent for our Henry  – the fifth of that name – Agincourt and all that.

The psychiatric condition of ‘glass delusion’ was well recognised across Europe during the era historians call the late medieval/early modern period. By the time Cervantes wrote about it in his short story, The Glass Graduate (1613), it had, rather like today, become something of a cultural phenomenon. Richard Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) notes many cases.

In a BBC radio programme on the condition (“The Glass Delusion”), broadcast last year, psychoanalyst Adam Philips argued that “the glass delusion has powerful contemporary resonance in a society in which anxieties about fragility, transparency and personal space are pertinent to many people’s experience of, and anxieties about, living in the modern world. The feeling of being made of glass could be a useful way of understanding how we negotiate society, a society that is increasingly crowded, in which modern technological advances isolate us and offer apparently boundary-less communication.”

Universities will, doubtless, draw comfort and confidence from such insights. They will be encouraged to redouble their efforts to provide ‘trigger warnings’ that treat students as infants and place real constraints on subject knowledge and on academic freedom.

Latest media reports from the battlefield of political correctness indicate that University College London is warning archaeology students that studying the past “may be disturbing, even traumatising”. Any student who finds those olds bones a bit scary is invited to “step outside” of the class “without penalty”.

A similar ‘trigger warning’ was attached to a recent lecture on the Roman poet, Ovid, given at Royal Holloway, University of London. The lecturer felt the need to alert students that some of Ovid’s work described “domestic violence and other nasty things.”

Meanwhile, law students at Oxford have been warned that they can leave lectures if they feel distressed by the content. This did, at least, produce one expression of opposition. Law professor, Laura Hoyano, told the Daily Mail: “We can’t remove sexual offences from the criminal law syllabus – obviously. If you are going to study law, you have to deal with things that are difficult.”

Will such robust common sense shatter the ‘glass delusion’? Do not count on it.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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