Discretion in Educational Readings: Why it is good to have

Words by Alisha Rao

Content Warning: brief mentions of sexual violence within literature

Discretion is defined as showing good judgement with caution; I find this commonly appears in situations where a sensitive issue or topic requires prefacing. I mulled over the topics that require this judgement, and only in retrospect have I considered one topic that sorely needs it.

Greek mythology is filled with interesting morals and myths of small and grand proportions. It has been a lifelong interest of mine. With that said, there are a number of stories that are questionable and problematic in the modern lens. As a Classics major, I find myself desensitized to this particular collection of myths, and more or less read ancient literature for what it is. It is all about context in that sense, but that does negate the impact texts with troubling events can have on readers today, especially if the exposure to said stories are required for a class.

In the Classical Mythology course I am taking at this time, the PhD student teaching us has addressed this issue succinctly. We were provided readings on the Homeric Hymns, a collection of poetic texts dedicated to the gods. Aetiologically (aetion = cause, origin, logos = reason/an account), it describes famous stories attributed to some Olympians, including Demeter, Apollo, Hermes, and Aphrodite. In the second Hymn (the one dedicated to Demeter), there are scenes describing the rape of her daughter, Persephone, by Hades. This text was the first required reading of the hymns, so we were advised to read it at our discretion. I was initially surprised, as this was the first time (in my personal experience) an individual in a teaching position prefaced the text with serious consideration. In turn, I realized two things; this was a concern not previously expressed in previous Classics courses I took, and the importance of discretion in education where it is necessary.

As a second year student, I have yet to see other approaches towards these difficult topics where it is relevant. I tried to think about the other Classics course I took in the past, recalling that texts with similar triggering topics were never explicitly approached with caution; maybe an informal footnote was announced in person, but that was where it generally ended. The idea of stating discretion before a reading became one I realized sooner, because the implication of discretion has no downsides. It effectively warns an unknowing reader, and even implicitly informs readers about the context of a reading.

Take for example The Iliad, a notable epic by Greek poet Homer, a text that is reviewed often in many Classics courses. For the sake of argument, this will be reviewed from an educational standpoint. One of the main causes of the Trojan War, fought between the Greeks (Achaeans) and Trojans, is the abduction of a Greek Queen named Helen. Her abduction occurs because Aphrodite (goddess of love) told Paris (Helen’s abductor and a Trojan Prince) he would find the prettiest woman in the world as fate would see fit. After the abduction, her husband Menelaus responds by enlisting his brother’s help and assembling the Achaean forces to attack Troy. This narrative catalyst, in some interpretations, notes she may have been raped and not just abducted. For someone not armed with this information prior to reading The Iliad could find this difficult to internalize, especially if it was not prefaced beforehand.

Discretion is an effective warning and preface to a selected text or compilation of information, because when we are unfamiliar with a set of knowledge, we are unsure what to expect. It is startling to read or see something that could potentially trigger someone, which reinforces the importance of discretion; texts like The Iliad are not easy to read with our current mindset, but knowing beforehand that difficult themes are represented informs us. There are still many interesting themes and ethical discussions to be drawn from such an old piece of literature like The Iliad; this does not excuse, justify, or mediate the controversial content it simultaneously presents, such as Helen’s character arc and violent war scenes. Establishing discretion towards a selection of material that deals with heavy topics is important, and even more so in a teaching setting, where the aim is to cultivate knowledge and not intentionally disturb students. I do hope to see more demonstrations of discretion (where necessary) towards any future readings I will have.

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