Universities admit purge of ‘challenging’ books to protect students


Investigation finds institutions are dropping books containing depictions of suicide and slavery from syllabuses

By Telegraph Reporters 9 August 2022 • 11:51pm

Works by William Shakespeare were among those deemed to require warnings
Works by William Shakespeare were among those deemed to require warnings CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES

Universities have removed books from reading lists to protect students from “challenging” content, an investigation has found.

Essex and Sussex admitted removing texts from study lists after freedom of information (FOI) requests were issued to 140 UK universities by The Times.

The universities are thought to be the first in the UK that have purged books altogether.

Another eight universities, including from the prestigious Russell Group, said they had made texts optional in case they caused harm to students.

Essex University has “removed permanently” the novel The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead, over concerns about graphic depictions of slavery.

And Sussex University has axed the classic play Miss Julie, by August Strindberg, because it includes a discussion about suicide.

The Times sent almost 300 FOIs to 140 universities asking for details about “trigger warnings” placed on texts and any that had been removed from curricula.

It found 1,081 examples of trigger warnings across undergraduate courses.

Jane Austen's work was given a trigger warning
Jane Austen’s work was given a trigger warning CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES

Some of the country’s most famous writers – William Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer, Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens and Agatha Christie – were among those deemed to require warnings.

Essex University’s English module “Beginning the Novel”  includes works by modern authors such as Sally Rooney, Zadie Smith and Deborah Levy.

Until recently it featured Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad.

However, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book has been purged from the course because of its “graphic description of violence and abuse of slavery”.

Colson Whitehead's book was removed because of its "graphic description of violence and abuse of slavery"

Colson Whitehead’s book was removed because of its “graphic description of violence and abuse of slavery” CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES

Elizabeth McGregor, 22, who studied the module this year, told The Times: “We have been told a few times that we can choose whether or not to read texts, often when the themes are about race, slavery or gender … They think we are children and are coddling us.”

The University of Essex said it encouraged “open and frank discussions in our seminars” and this included “convening difficult and sometimes uncomfortable conversations”.

A spokesperson added: “It is completely untrue and misleading to say Underground Railroad has been banned or blacklisted. Underground Railroad is available in our library and remains an option for inclusion on future reading lists in relevant modules. 

“Books covering themes and issues around slavery are on the reading lists for many other modules.  

“Underground Railroad was replaced on one reading list for a creative writing module about the development of the novel, as another book was viewed as better suited to the learning aims.”

The University of Sussex said in its FOI response that Miss Julie had been “permanently withdrawn” from the reading list because students had complained about its “psychological” and “emotional effects”.

In the play, the character Jean threatens to commit suicide out of love of Miss Julie. She is later handed a razor by Jean when she also expresses a wish to kill herself.

The play is studied at A-level and is regularly performed throughout the country.

A spokeswoman for Sussex told The Times its response to the FOI was incorrect and the removal of the text from the reading list was only temporary.


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