Higher-education institutions have an obligation to take reasonable steps to protect students from physical harm, dangerous people, harassment and bullying. What they should not try to do is to protect students from ideas that might shock, scandalize or even offend them.
Sadly, a handful of universities are considering using “trigger warnings” on course descriptions that warn about material that might be particularly reactive for victims of assaults and war veterans. The warnings would give students who might suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder a heads-up before being exposed to something that “triggers” memories of an attack. They would be allowed to skip that particular reading.
Worse still, these suggestions are coming from the students.
One of those institutions is the University of California, Santa Barbara, where the student government is pushing the administration to adopt a policy for such an alert at the request of a student who was upset by a film shown in class that depicted a rape, as reported by The New York Times. Advocates at UCSB hope the idea will spread systemwide.
Sensible people, however, should hope the proposal is shelved along with all the other well-meaning but misguided suggestions that seek to “help” students by limiting material and giving them the option to ignore material.
College-level instruction is supposed to be provocative. Students need exposure to different – and, yes, sometimes offensive – perspectives to broaden their intellectual horizons and help them develop the critical-thinking skills adults require.
We’re not talking about “Fifty Shades of Grey” (which many college kids have read on their own) but classic works that have been used as teaching tools for generations of college and high school students – “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” or “Oedipus Rex.” One Rutgers student, Philip Wythe, who likes the idea of trigger warnings, wrote in a February column that the “trigger warning for ‘The Great Gatsby’ might be: (TW: ‘suicide,’ ‘domestic abuse’ and ‘graphic violence.’)”
One can only imagine the warning label on the Bible: (TW: “fratricide,” “infanticide,” “genocide,” “rape,” “enslavement,” etc.).
This, of course, assumes students read the syllabi other than to scan the book requirements and class schedule.
Let’s reserve warnings for when they might count by providing valuable information that might help curb self-destructive behavior. As Proposition 65 taught Californians with its ridiculous proliferation of labels warning of possible carcinogens lurking in, say, parking lots, too many warnings are as bad as too few.
Literature is provocative. Warnings on good books are implied: They might make readers think, whether they expect it or not.