The liberal arts have long considered themselves a bastion of both freedom and fairness. Sometimes it’s possible to strive too hard for one and overtake the other.
Those of our readers plugged in to the blogosphere need no introduction to “trigger warnings,” advance warnings for content that might provoke emotional unrest. While such warnings are well-suited to the depths of Tumblr, they have no place in our classrooms.
Recently, activists have made an increasing push to impose trigger warnings in academic settings. Just days ago, the American Association of University Professors responded with an official statement opposing the institution of trigger warnings in education. They argue that trigger warnings do little to aid students suffering from trauma and emotional disturbances, shifting attention away from genuine solutions while curtailing the academic freedoms of others.
We agree with the AAUP’s stance and object to the enforced institution of academic trigger warnings on both principled and consequential grounds. While personally traumatic experiences are important to address and treat on college campuses, trigger warnings are neither a fair nor sufficient solution to such issues and would ultimately serve to undermine the fundamental values of academia.
It is sometimes deemed necessary for students to experience visceral reactions to the material with which they come into contact. The purpose of such material is to be taken by surprise, offended, and even, at times, disturbed. Such experiences are just as much a part of the process of learning and development as are memorization and critical thinking.
We have come to Penn because we want to be challenged — to have our perspectives tested and refined. That sometimes requires that we grapple with material that we find disagreeable or even disgusting. Anything less would fall short of a true education.
We acknowledge the good intentions behind trigger warnings and recognize that personal trauma affects members of our community. As Penn’s student body unfortunately knows firsthand, emotional suffering is a serious issue that deserves treatment just like any other disorder or illness.
Trigger warnings, however, are too broad to guarantee protection for students. There is a significant consensus among psychologists and therapists that individuals are often triggered by seemingly arbitrary stimuli, such as colors and sounds. To suggest that the university must make it its obligation to warn students of any potentially triggering stimuli would be wildly unrealistic.
On the contrary, more serious measures can and should be taken. University administrators and help centers on campus should be working systematically to prevent and treat emotional issues among the student body. As for the classroom, we’re not saying trigger warnings are categorically bad — only that it is the professor’s prerogative to decide whether trigger warnings would be a sensible addition to the learning environment.
If trigger warnings are instituted in academic settings, they will compromise the spirit of free expression that is crucial to education. Just as importantly, they will probably fail to bring about meaningful results, which will only be achieved through deeper, more substantive reforms to student wellbeing. There are democratic and effective ways for universities to help students who are suffering; trigger warnings are not one of them.
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