In a May 21, 2014, Washington Post column, Kathleen Parker alerted readers to a phenomenon in higher education termed “trigger warnings.” These are instructional caveats offered about class assignments that may contain language, situations, or expressed political, religious, or personal philosophy that might be “upsetting” to students, thereby giving them the choice to opt out of reading or viewing or even discussing something that might discomfit them.
Parker’s position was that these trigger warnings go far beyond what one might expect, extending to areas of personal experience no one but the affected student would be aware of. “One never knows when a sentence, phrase or word might trigger some buried memory or traumatic experience,” she writes.
She reports that universities like Rutgers, Oberlin College, George Washington, and Michigan are considering measures that would require such advisories to be issued in advance of any assignment or discussion that might disturb someone’s sensibilities. Presumably, any objecting student could avoid the assignment or even a required class involving the material merely by claiming to be sensitive to it.
In a related piece posted at reason.com, Zach Weissmueller offered a short video featuring Bailey Loverin, a UC Santa Barbara student, campaigning for a regulation obliging professors to offer “warnings before presenting material that might trigger memories of past traumas.” This would presumably go beyond the obvious topics of race, sexism, and hot-button issues like abortion and gay marriage, climate change and evolution, and would include almost any aspect of human behavior—divorce, death of a loved one, catastrophic illness or accident, disease, dismemberment or physical or mental impairment—and could even extend, one supposes, to personal beauty (or lack thereof) or popularity (or lack thereof) or athletic prowess (or lack thereof) and, if carried to the ultimate conclusion, even to halitosis or poor fashion taste.
One imagines warnings would have to be attached to such topics as dyslexia, color-blindness, tone-deafness, bad temperament, distaste for certain foods, skin blemishes, and eye color. And, of course, there are vocational choices, addictions, unpleasant personal relationships, and individual financial woes. Without question, victims of PTSD or other combat-related issues could excuse themselves from any war literature, history, and art.
The line of absurdity in this scenario is hard to find. Everyone, one imagines, could potentially be upset by something.
In a way, none of this is new. It’s approaching the point of the ridiculous that I forecast would come back in the late 1980’s when public schools were banning (and in some cases burning) copies of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Slaughterhouse-Five. In the 90’s, Joseph Conrad’s amazing story “The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’” was dropped from anthologies, and the word niggardly, which has nothing whatsoever to do with race, either directly or indirectly, either denotatively or connotatively, was expunged from all published material, and works (Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner) containing it were banned from many classrooms.
I and many other educators have long lamented the deterioration of educational principles and practices as a result of a conservative philosophy that has transformed education from a process of learning and development of ideas into a process of vocational training designed to make a profit. The notion that every student has the right to succeed but also the right to fail has given way to the idea that failure is not really an option, not because of any emphasis on achievement, but because every student who fails and drops out is a loss, not so much to society, but to the institution’s bottom line. Colleges and universities, it seems, have become corporate ventures, designed to generate money and, of course, to keep large numbers of administrators employed at high salaries.
But while this “attack” from the right has been going on, assaults on teaching methods from the left have been managed with even greater efficiency. Chiefly, these have centered on questions of political correctness, which were well intentioned in the beginning; but, as Parker and others point out, they’ve now grown into expanded areas of individual sensibility that have restricted pedagogy to a point where almost nothing can be read, viewed, or discussed that might in some way offend someone.
There is, though, a difference between examining material that deals with potentially upsetting topics in a literary or artistic way and delving into material that exploits or celebrates it for titillating effect. Gratuitous or sensational display designed merely to provoke is one thing; serious intellectual or aesthetic consideration of its effects is another. This is where academic freedom comes into play; this is where sound scholastic judgment has to be exercised.
The time-honored concept of academic freedom has always allowed a professor to do or say pretty much anything in a classroom, so long as it could be justified on scholastic grounds. Inciting to criminal action was forbidden, as were open calls for sedition or sociopathic behavior and, of course, personal remarks. But even within those guidelines, there was never a limitation on what could be read, viewed, or even said inside a classroom if it was academically relevant.
As early as the 1980’s, I found myself responding, albeit reluctantly, to gentle pressure from the politically correct crowd by altering the language I used in class. I had never been deliberately vulgar or profane in my personal utterances, and I was always sensitive to racial or sexist verbiage (“girl” became “woman”; “black” became “African-American,” etc.), except, of course, when citing or reading aloud from a published text; but I became gradually more selective in assigning visual materials such as films or artwork. There is no educational value in openly displaying material that might cause some students to squirm in discomfort or embarrassment; at the same time, such matter is often vitally important for an understanding of the relevance of art and literature as a way of gaining insight into human history, human relationships, and human behavior.
I still believe that under the now somewhat tattered, leaky umbrella of academic freedom I can do and say what I want (within educational perimeters); how such material is approached or handled is more important than the material itself. But I also am aware that a complaint from an offended student will be time-consuming and distracting; additionally, the adjudication of complaints can establish even more limiting and confining precedents. This awareness sometimes steers me away from potentially upsetting subjects or artifacts, including many well-established masterpieces that truly are relevant to the subject at hand.
I routinely teach a class that involves “banned books,” in which I include works by Daniel Defoe, James Joyce, Honoré de Balzac, Mark Twain, Kate Chopin, D.H. Lawrence, Anaïs Nin, and Vladimir Nabokov, among others; I have never offered “trigger warnings” about the works assigned. I do publish a reading list in advance, and I state that all students will be required to read all works. That seems sufficient to me.
Lately I have found, though, that the perceived need for “trigger warnings” has spread beyond instructional responsibility. Now, students feel compelled to issue them themselves.
I recently taught a graduate humanities seminar with the topic of “The Iconic Heroes of the American West.” Students were required to make formal presentations. Topics were open, though subject to approval, and could involve any literature, history, or visual arts they chose. One woman, a public-school teacher, elected to talk about how western films of the early 1970’s reflected both an evolving national attitude regarding the war in Vietnam and a growing awareness of the rights of Native Americans. She selected excerpts from several movies to illustrate her points. One she picked was Soldier Blue, a tepid, crudely done western. She began her presentation by offering a caution that the material she was about to display contained violence against women, brutality, and nudity, so anyone who didn’t want to witness such should excuse himself or herself.
I was taken aback by this, especially since part of the exercise was to generate and manage a discussion of the material among the whole class. I recognized, though, that the student was responding to a national climate of change in higher education. If something is potentially disturbing, offending, or discomfiting, then apparently students have the right to avoid it, even to be excused entirely from it, in much the same way that warnings about television programs are provided by networks, so potential viewers can avoid what might offend them. The logical conclusion of this is that it would be possible for an entire class to refuse to read or discuss or view any of a course’s content on the grounds that it might, in some way, upset them. It could mean that no course in literature, art, or even history or philosophy could be adequately conducted, because it would be impossible to assemble any number of individuals for whom at least some of the assigned material might not be personally distressing.
It seems unlikely that such an extreme would occur, but it’s not impossible. Had I been told that the teaching of certain classic works of literature might be offensive to some Catholic students some years ago, I would have scoffed. But I am aware of colleagues who have dropped from their reading lists works ranging from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Graham Greene for that very reason. Some professors won’t teach The Satanic Verses, and others avoid details concerning the medieval Crusades when a substantial number of Islamic students are enrolled. Others, I know, avoid teaching works that treat homosexuality, positively or negatively. I am reminded of a story told by an undergraduate professor of mine who claimed he was fired from a position in the 1950’s for teaching Jack London, Jack Reed, and John Dos Passos because of their leftist views. It’s a kind of repression of ideas and thought that, once begun, has no real boundaries.
The larger issue here is that administrations of universities are terrified of bad publicity and litigation. Demanding that students be exposed to material that will potentially offend them can result in hefty lawsuits. Thus, the left and the right have seemingly united to limit the scope of material that can be used in the classroom, because of a heightened sensitivity, on the one hand, and because of a fear of monetary consequences, on the other.
The result, of course, is censorship, but not in the ordinary political sense. It may be more insidious, particularly when the principle is applied to matters of conscience. If one is unable to present material containing potentially disturbing elements, then one is unable to offer an educational platform in which ideas are presented, challenged, debated, and resolved. The projected result is that education, as a concept, ceases to exist; only a validation of preconceived narratives, properly diluted and filtered to remove all discomfiting elements, is offered as a replacement for actual learning and expansion of intellect.
The politically correct pressures of the 1980’s became cautions in the 1990’s, restraints in the 2000’s, and now, apparently, they are taboos. Anything that makes students uncomfortable or challenges their preconceived view of the world, their values, or their understanding of history or literature or art is in danger of being eliminated from the classroom. I would say it’s almost a Nineteen Eighty-Four situation, although we now are told that George Orwell may not be suitable for some students’ reading experience. He was, after all, politically incorrect, so anyone objecting to reading him would, I fear, miss my point.
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