It’s official: we have raised at least one generation so privileged and self-centered that it makes demands on life instead of the other way around.
The New York Times reported recently on the rise of university student requests for “trigger warnings,” alerts from the professor that the syllabus material students may encounter in the course might deeply disturb them – re-traumatizing, for example, rape victims or war veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
The student government at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) formally called for trigger warnings, and similar requests have been made at Oberlin College, Rutgers University, the University of Michigan, and George Washington University, among others.
In a Rutgers newspaper editorial, for example, a student explained that trigger warnings are necessary for professors “to create a safe space for their students.” As examples, he cited Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, which addresses suicide, and hyperbolically describes “scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence” in The Great Gatsby.
UCSB sophomore Bailey Loverin has a slightly more legitimate complaint. Loverin is one of the students who requested trigger warnings. A victim herself of sexual abuse, she approached a professor after he showed a film depicting rape, and suggested that he should warn students. I don’t know how graphic that film was, but I could concede that if professors are dealing in course material that really is graphic, then a general warning to that effect is appropriate.
For example, Lisa Hajjar, a UCSB sociology professor, uses graphic depictions of torture in her courses about war. I could accept the argument that students should know what they are in for if they take the class. But Hajjar complains that
Any kind of blanket trigger policy is inimical to academic freedom. Any student can request some sort of individual accommodation, but to say we need some kind of one-size-fits-all approach is totally wrong. The presumption there is that students should not be forced to deal with something that makes them uncomfortable is absurd or even dangerous.
Speaking of absurd, a draft guide for trigger warnings circulated at Oberlin College is laughable in the extent of its catalog of topics considered disturbing. It urged professors to “be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression.” I’m not sure there is any work of art that would make the cut in that list. “Realize that all forms of violence are traumatic,” the guide continues, “and that your students have lives before and outside your classroom, experiences you may not expect or understand.” I think the writer of that guide should realize that it is condescending, and that students need to get over themselves and understand that the world, including a college classroom, doesn’t owe them any sensitivity to their personal circumstances, so they need to handle it or get help.
“Frankly,” says Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, “it seems this is sort of an inevitable movement toward people increasingly expecting physical comfort and intellectual comfort in their lives. It is only going to get harder to teach people that there is a real important and serious value to being offended. Part of that is talking about deadly serious and uncomfortable subjects.”
Rebecca Joines Shinsky at Book Riot takes a dim view of editorials (like mine) that complain about trigger warnings, which she favors because “people matter more” than books. She admits that “I’m not an educator, and I’m not here to make a declaration about how schools should address students’ concerns about triggering content,” but that “there is no scene in literature that is so important that reading it should supercede a reader’s psychological health.”
Jenny Jarvie at The New Republic disagrees:
Structuring public life around the most fragile personal sensitivities will only restrict all of our horizons. Engaging with ideas involves risk, and slapping warnings on them only undermines the principle of intellectual exploration. We cannot anticipate every potential trigger—the world, like the Internet, is too large and unwieldy. But even if we could, why would we want to? Bending the world to accommodate our personal frailties does not help us overcome them.
I couldn’t agree more with Ms. Jarvie. This is not to diminish anyone’s legitimate personal trauma, but if a college student is so sensitive that he or she is incapable of reading something as innocuous as The Great Gatsby or the anti-Semitism in The Merchant of Venice without suffering a psychological setback, then that student is in for a rude awakening about the real world. Institutions of higher learning exist, at least in theory, to open up students to the world, not to guarantee them safe passage through it.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 6/3/14)