Universities apparently have a new mission…protecting students from exposure to speech that makes them uncomfortable. God forbid, we don’t want our academic institutions subjecting kids to provocative ideas that might challenge their preconceptions and destroy their youthful innocence.
On a recent trip to Santa Barbara, CA I spotted a brief item in a local paper about the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB). Its Associated Students Senate had passed a resolution to begin the process of instituting mandatory “trigger warnings” on class syllabi.
“Having a trigger warning on a syllabus allows a student the choice to be present and gives a student advance notice of possible triggers and the choice to be present or not instead of having to leave in the middle of a class or lecture,” the Resolution said.
The high level of Students Senate debate at the sun-steeped school overlooking the blue Pacific was exemplified by the supportive comment of Off-Campus Senator Beatrice Contreras, “I’ve been in this kind of situation before — it sucks; we should pass it.”
The Los Angeles Times opined, and rightly so, that the whole idea is foreign to learning. “Trigger warnings are part of a campus culture that is increasingly overprotective and hypersensitive in its efforts to ensure that no student is ever offended or made to feel uncomfortable,” said a Times editorial.
Still, the concept appears to be gaining ground.
In February, Ohio’s Oberlin College put out guidelines asking faculty to refrain from using in their course materials information or works that would offend students. If professors believed such materials were essential to the course, they were expected to place a “trigger warning” in their syllabus. If students felt the material would be too emotionally difficult, faculty were encouraged to make such triggering material optional.
Faculty were urged to “be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression,” to remove triggering material when it doesn’t “directly” contribute to learning goals.
For example, faculty were cautioned that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, a highly-praised novel about the struggles of a man from an Ibo village in Nigeria, may “trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide and more.”
After strenuous criticism within the school and in the media, Oberlin has temporarily suspended the trigger policy, pending further faculty review.
The issue has surfaced at Rutgers University, too, where a student wrote to the university newspaper endorsing notifications to students of material that might trigger discomfort.
“…literature courses often examine works with grotesque, disturbing and gruesome imagery within their narratives,” the student noted. “For instance, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s critically acclaimed novel, “The Great Gatsby,” possesses a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence. Virginia Woolf’s famous cerebral narrative, “Mrs. Dalloway,” paints a disturbing narrative that examines the suicidal inclinations and post-traumatic experiences of an English war veteran.”
Even the liberal New Republic ran a piece criticizing the trigger-happy trend. “Structuring public life around the most fragile personal sensitivities will only restrict all of our horizons,” wrote Jennie Jarvie. “Engaging with ideas involves risk, and slapping warnings on them only undermines the principle of intellectual exploration.”
Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas had the right answer to all this foolishness.
“…a function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute,” he wrote in the majority opinion in Terminiello v. City of Chicago “It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger. Speech is often provocative and challenging. It may strike at prejudices and preconceptions and have profound unsettling effects as it presses for acceptance of an idea.”
A university free from challenging or disturbing thoughts is a university free from learning.
The latest campus fad, which sees racism everywhere, will create a new generation of permanent victims.