Have Trigger Warnings on Campus Gone Too Far?

Professors say college students need to keep an open mind about disturbing or unfamiliar academic material.
(Photo: Getty Images)
Oct 7, 2016· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

Proponents say they’re creating safe spaces for sexual assault victims, combat veterans, or other college students who have experienced trauma or violence. Experts say they’re well intentioned but doing more harm than good, working against the very idea of higher education: acquiring knowledge and learning how to think critically.

In the latest part of a fast-growing trend, the student body president at American University in Washington, D.C., is demanding that faculty issue trigger warnings to students ahead of disturbing lessons, readings, or classroom discussions.

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“The fact of the matter is, trigger warnings are necessary in order to make our academic spaces accessible to all students, especially those who have experienced trauma,” Devontae Torriente argued on a YouTube video released in September. His demand, in turn, inspired a supportive Twitter thread under the hashtag #LetUsLearn.

But AU’s Faculty Senate rejected the demand, and an increasing number of academics at colleges nationwide are following suit, including one University of Chicago dean who warned students in August that they wouldn’t be warned at all. At the same time, free speech proponents arguing against the practice say well-meaning students are taking a commonsense advisory used in online rape-survivor forums to block literary classics such as The Great Gatsby, classroom discussions about the everyday brutality of slavery, and law school lessons on how to prosecute a rapist.

“Students generally think this is helpful to their fellow students, [but] students are misusing the language of post-traumatic stress disorder,” Greg Lukianoff, an attorney and the president and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an academic-freedom advocacy group, told TakePart. “They are not recognizing the fact that if you are actually someone who is in such a bad position that you will actually be triggered—that is, have an episode in class—you need serious [psychological] help well beyond” a warning.

Others argue the warnings are having a chilling effect on professors, stifling experienced educators who want to challenge students in a marketplace of ideas but don’t want to get fired for teaching a lesson that might make some students uncomfortable.

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“History can be ugly. A lot of the great literature of the world is filled with things that might be shocking, offensive, or upset people, but that’s part of the reason why that literature is so great,” Jesse Saffron, managing editor at the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, a North Carolina–based think tank, told TakePart. “It helps increase our ability to understand our fellow human beings.”

Most analysts agree that the trend of trigger warnings likely sprang from attempts to moderate internet forums for rape victims and the mentally ill. Schools from Oberlin College in Ohio to the University of California, Berkeley, are grappling over whether to give students a heads up before launching into material some may find disturbing.

A recent NPR survey of more than 800 academics found roughly half the professors had warned students before introducing difficult material, “and most said they did so by choice, not policy or student request.”

Ismail Muhammad, a professor at UC Berkeley, told NPR his ambivalence about trigger warnings changed after he screened the Academy Award–winning 1974 film Chinatown for a film and literature class last fall and noticed an Asian American student in the class “was very uncomfortable and genuinely hurt.”

“I was like, ‘If I can prevent that kind of pain from happening in the classroom by simply alerting students to that kind of language before it gets sprung on them, why wouldn’t I do that?’ ” Muhammad said.

At the University of Chicago, however, Dean of Students John Ellison wrote a letter in August to incoming students vowing the school won’t cancel controversial speakers, won’t provide “safe spaces” for sensitive students, and doesn’t condone any attempts by some on campus to “retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

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Lukianoff applauds Ellison’s letter. Academics, he said, believe they’re walking on eggshells and can get fired if someone takes offense for nearly any infraction, real or imagined.

“It becomes very difficult to teach some of the most important things adults need to learn,” and trigger warnings don’t protect the people they’re intended to help by creating student aversion to a topic or subject where it didn’t exist, Lukianoff said. “More importantly, and where the big divide comes from is, some students think they’re [being] perfectly reasonable, whereas professors are worried because they feel [the warnings create] a large number of reasons you can punish provocative professors.”

The Pope Center’s Saffron said the trigger warnings are coming from “a sort of ideological progressive mind-set” in which young people “don’t know what they don’t know.”

The professor “is supposed to be the expert. [Students are] supposed to defer to the professor’s knowledge and the professor’s scholarship,” Saffron said. “What we’re seeing is the students saying, ‘We know what’s best for us—we know what we should learn and not learn.’ ”

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