Solveig Torvik

Here’s the latest good-news flash: mice actually like running on treadmills.

Left to their own devices, wild mice wandering around the neighborhood of an outdoor garden in the Netherlands showed brain scientists who recorded their antics over a period of years that they just like to hop on treadmills and run, for no apparent reason except the presumed joy of running.

They ran from one minute up to 18 minutes at a time, echoing behavior long ago noticed by Konrad Lorenz, the Nobel Prize-winning animal behavioral scientist, who said some of the rats that had escaped his laboratory voluntarily returned to his outdoor garden treadmill for a little spin cycle.

The experiment with wild mice was meant to shed light on whether it’s cruel to keep caged mice in the science labs where they perform such heroic, unheralded service to humanity. Critics contend that the mice’s incessant running on treadmills inside their cages is a manifestation of stress, neurosis and rodent despair. But maybe not?

This digression into the distraction of seemingly gladsome news about lab mice admittedly serves mostly an antidote to the other kind of news. Such as the latest dust-up in the academe: 

Should students be given “trigger warnings” when they are asked to read works of literature that might upset them? Trigger warnings signal that something might trigger a traumatic reaction.

Here’s a warning of my own: as a former teacher of literature, I own a bias here. And it’s decidedly not that college syllabuses should come with standard-issue labels to warn students off books. Getting oneself mentally equipped to comprehend and survive the rigors of human life is a paramount challenge for our species. But that’s what education is for. Isn’t it? Hello?

Opponents outraged by the idea of giving trigger warnings to college students who are embarking on explorations of the literary canon rightly contend that the warnings “suggest a certain fragility of mind that higher learning is meant to challenge, not embrace,” as a New York Times report by Jennifer Medina aptly put it.

“The presumption … that students should not be forced to deal with something that makes them uncomfortable is absurd or even dangerous,” added Lisa Hajjar, a sociology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

But proponents of trigger warnings say they fear the harmful effects some books may have on students who’ve had traumatic experiences similar to those depicted in novels. In some instances, this may be a valid concern. But surely more individualized solutions are at hand than requiring blanket warnings be slapped on literary works. Save us, please, from the cosseting mercies of the Nanny State.

Presumably this fear of trauma from books is what drove students and even some professors at Oberlin College to draft a dictum requiring that professors flag anything that might “disrupt a student’s learning” and “cause trauma.” By no means is Oberlin the only institution of higher learning where some want to hop aboard this wayward bus.

At Oberlin, proponents of the trigger warning cut nicely to the chase: “Be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexsim, [prejudice toward transgendered persons] ableism, [prejudice toward the handicapped] and other issues of privilege and oppression,” the Oberlin draft guide said. Some novels, such as Things Fall Apart, should be read, the draftees agreed.

But they warned that the book could “trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide and more.”

The book might upset readers who have been alive, in other words.

Opponents argue that the triggerism movement that’s sweeping through college campuses is a threat to academic freedom. Not to mention a threat to common sense.

“Frankly it seems this is sort of an inevitable movement toward people increasingly expecting physical comfort and intellectual comfort in their lives,” said Greg Lukianoff, president of the free-speech advocacy group, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. “It is only going to get harder to teach people that there is a real important and serious value to being offended.”

Here’s my take: A given work of literature reflects one person’s distillation of the human experience, as seen through the lens of a skilled, insightful writer whose observations typically have stood the test of time. Students are asked to delve into the world’s compendium of literature on the assumption that, in all its contradictory, disturbing and challenging manifestations, literature has something enlightening to say to us, that it passes on the accumulated knowledge and experience — and sometimes even the wisdom — of humanity.

Whether a reader embraces, disdains or even is repelled by an author’s depictions of the human condition is never the point. Drawing one’s own well-considered conclusions about what the author had to say about it is the point.

As with those wild mice jogging on treadmills, might the fear of trauma triggered by exposure to books simply be a misreading of the situation?

Solveig Torvik lives in Winthrop.