With the passage of the 26th Amendment in 1971, America gave 18-year-olds the right to vote and affirmed that they are legally adults. They can elect legislators, bear arms, and serve in the military. It stands to reason, then, that these young citizens should be able to handle the mature themes that they are likely to encounter as part of a true liberal arts education.
So why are today's colleges moving toward implementing a paternalistic warning system for classes that include discussions of potentially sensitive topics, such as violence, sex, racism, and abuse? The New York Times reports: "Colleges across the country this spring have been wrestling with student requests for what are known as 'trigger warnings,' explicit alerts that the material they are about to read or see in a classroom might upset them or, as some students assert, cause symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in victims of rape or in war veterans."
In February of this year, Oberlin College posted a Sexual Offense Resource Guide on its website that asked professors to proceed with caution when discussing topics that might distress "survivors of sexualized violence in their classrooms," in order to "ensure a welcoming and supportive environment" for them.
Unsurprisingly, however, this purported effort to create a more sensitive classroom was highly politicized. Oberlin's guide stressed that "sexual misconduct is inextricably tied to issues of privilege and oppression." Faculty members were advised to "[e]ducate [themselves] about racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of oppression" and to be aware of how these issues could impact classroom discussions. The guide referred to such topics as "triggers," defining that term as "something that recalls a traumatic event to an individual."
So what advice did Oberlin have for professors whose course material might contain potential "triggers"? In a section entitled "Understand triggers, avoid unnecessary triggers, and provide trigger warnings" (authors' emphasis), the guide asked professors to "remove triggering material when it does not contribute directly to the course learning goals" and to "[i]ssue a trigger warning" when such material could not be eliminated altogether. Amazingly, Oberlin also noted that "[a]nything could be a trigger—a smell, song, scene, phrase, place, person, and so on."
Oberlin professors were less than thrilled with essentially being required to read the minds of their students to determine what sounds or smells might cause them trauma. Following widespread criticism, the policy was quickly taken down.
In The New Republic, Jenny Jarvie provides a brief history of trigger warnings: "Initially, trigger warnings were used in self-help and feminist forums to help readers who might have post traumatic stress disorder to avoid graphic content that might cause painful memories, flashbacks, or panic attacks. … As the Internet grew, warnings became more popular, and critics began to question their use." While trigger warnings may have originated in an obscure corner of the Internet, their arrival on campus shows that they are transitioning into other realms and having a larger impact on discourse.
Oberlin's policy required faculty to act as parents: Much like a mother accompanying her young child to an action film, professors were asked to determine whether the students in their classes were capable of handling certain content. The important difference, however, is that college students aren't ten years old. They're adults. As such, they need to be able to handle topics that adults encounter in daily life.
While Oberlin appears to be reconsidering its trigger warning guidelines, the concept is gaining traction at other universities. The University of California, Santa Barbara, (UCSB) is in the process of implementing such a policy after student leaders passed a "Resolution to Mandate Warnings For Triggering Content in Academic Settings" in February. The UCSB resolution uses less broad language than Oberlin's guide, but its effect is much the same. It urges professors to provide trigger warnings on their syllabi for any course materials that touch upon issues such as "Rape, Sexual Assault, Abuse, Self-Injurious Behavior, Suicide, Graphic Violence, Pornography, Kidnapping, and Graphic Depictions of Gore."
Unlike the Oberlin policy, the UCSB resolution does not explicitly ask professors to avoid using such material altogether. But it still places professors in the parental position of determining whether a particular book or film contains content that will distress their students and issuing appropriate warnings "well in advance of triggering content." The resolution explains that students who might feel unable to discuss such issues will then have "the choice to be present or not." In other words, they can decide that a particular lecture may be just too difficult for them to endure, and can simply stay home that day.
An Inadequate Solution for a Medical Problem
So what's the problem with being sensitive? After all, the stated intent of the UCSB resolution is to protect those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an acknowledged condition that affects roughly 7.7 million American adults, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Oberlin's advice doesn't mention PTSD specifically, but still attempts to prevent students from "recall[ing] a traumatic event."
PTSD is a serious issue among survivors of everything from rape to terrorist attacks like 9/11. But if students are suffering from PTSD to the extent that even curricular mentions of violence (sexual or otherwise) bring on symptoms of the disorder, that's an actual mental health problem that should be addressed by medical or counseling professionals—not faculty making their best guesses at which Shakespeare play is too much for their students to handle.
If it were possible to live in a world without triggering events, the arguments advanced by trigger warning advocates might have more merit. But students will eventually leave campus, entering a world filled with triggers—sights, smells, sounds, and traumatic events alike. Attempts to create a bubble-wrapped campus environment devoid of triggers is doomed to failure because of their unpredictable nature. Even if such an effort were to succeed, the "best" possible outcome would be to delay the diagnosis and treatment of students with PTSD for four years, rather than getting them the help they will need to deal with life after college.
What's the Cost?
Proponents of trigger warnings don't usually dwell on their costs—but they are significant. Slapping a warning label on academic speech is sure to stifle the spirit of free and open inquiry that must exist at an institution of higher learning. During their college years, students should be learning to become critical thinkers. Students develop that ability by encountering and exploring a wide range of ideas, some of which might be alien, offensive, or deeply challenging. In doing so, they test their own beliefs and the beliefs of others, discarding some and adopting new ones. The analytical skills they develop along the way will enable them to tackle important issues throughout their lives, long after they graduate.
Oberlin, in fact, implicitly acknowledges this cost in its now-shelved guidelines. It states, "Sometimes a work is too important to avoid. For example, Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart is a triumph of literature that everyone in the world should read. However, it may trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide, and more." The just-barely-unstated corollary to this is that works less masterful (as judged by Oberlin) than Achebe's are not worth exploring, given their capacity to trigger students. And the number of works of science, art, and literature that would, in Oberlin's opinion, be less of a "triumph" than Things Fall Apart is undoubtedly vast.
When a college places limits on the topics their students can encounter, it effectively robs them of a complete education. To attend college is (or should be) to deliberately seek out an experience in which one will wrestle with humanity's most serious issues. Students and professors must be able to discuss such topics like the adults they are. Trigger warning policies make this kind of discourse less likely to take place. Instead, they send the troubling message that professors should avoid ideas that could potentially spark an emotional response from their students, and they guarantee that the students who skip certain lectures or assignments will not receive the full benefit of the classroom experience.
Photo Credit: Anders Ljungberg / Foter