Why college classes don’t need ‘trigger warnings’

Trigger warning: This class may expose you to opinions and ideas that you may find offensive or believe may offend someone else.

Sounds pretty ridiculous, right? But students at several institutions around the country, including Oberlin College, the University of California, Santa Barbara; Rutgers University and the University of Michigan, have all been calling for their administrators to enforce rules requiring professors to include “trigger warnings” in their syllabi.

Trigger warnings, for those who don’t frequent Tumblr, warn readers that they’re about to peruse something that could cause panic or flashbacks to a traumatic experience, such as rape or abuse.

However, the well-meaning attempt to save unsuspecting readers from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder now includes such triggers as “slimy things” and the use of the word “stupid.” We acknowledge that trigger warnings are not dismissible, but there is a line between protection and coddling. There is a difference between the symptoms of PTSD and discomfort with controversial topics.

Potential triggers also include just about every word that could end in -ism, as described in Oberlin’s draft guide for trigger warnings in the classroom, quoted by The New York Times.

“Triggers are not only relevant to sexual misconduct, but also to anything that might cause trauma,” the guide reads. “Be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression. Realize that all forms of violence are traumatic, and that your students have lives before and outside your classroom, experiences you may not expect or understand.”

Oberlin misses the point, as does the student government at UCSB, which voted in March to require professors to warn their students about potentially triggering content.

With students coming from so many different places physically and mentally, it’s next to impossible to find a book or movie that won’t upset someone. However, the goal of a college education shouldn’t be to avoid being uncomfortable.

There are too many recent examples of people trying to avoid discomfort, from parents complaining about a Lyric Opera Theater performance of a number from “Rent” that included the partial display of a cast member’s buttocks to the three-year block of the Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican-American Studies program (state Republicans like Attorney General Tom Horne and Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal insisted it would create “racial division”).

In most of our lives, we can control the information we receive from outside sources. We can choose to watch Fox or MSNBC, to listen to Kanye West or Toby Keith, to read Slate or the Heritage Foundation. If you’re troubled by a song’s lyrics, you can change the station or hit “Skip” on Spotify; if you don’t like a book or a movie, you can put it down.

There are plenty of ways for college students to stay in their bubbles and plenty of places in which they can, but a college classroom shouldn’t be one of them. Instead, we come to school to learn, to challenge our beliefs and grow as people.

That isn’t going to happen if colleges bow to societal pressure and force teachers to coddle their students by providing “trigger warnings” for books such as “The Great Gatsby,” which one columnist at Rutgers University’s student newspaper, the Daily Targum, said should come with warnings for “suicide,” “domestic abuse” and “graphic violence.”

Students requesting such trigger warnings need to accept that they are adults with the responsibility to look after themselves. The world cannot always cater to you.

Instead of requiring professors to help students maintain an idealized view of the world, leave them the freedom to teach about slavery through books like the “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” or Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” even if they contain traumatizing accounts of abuse.

Let them address touchy subjects like homophobia, sexism and racism in the civilized containment of classroom, where students can share their different ideas and learn from each other. To create a society that may actually tackle systemic problems, we need to discuss these issues openly instead of hiding from them with trigger warnings.

 

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