College academia is supposed to expand our minds in ways that may make us uncomfortable. We can’t be well versed on the biggest issues of our time if we don’t study them from all angles. A problem with studying certain issues, such as war and sexual assault, is that there may be students who have had traumatic experiences related to that particular topic of study. It’s important to study these subjects so that we can analyze and attempt to solve the problems related to them, but students with traumatic experiences may find this difficult. Exposing people to content that triggers traumatic memories can have serious mental health consequences, so educational institutions need to be careful to ensure it doesn’t happen. However, they must do so without compromising teachers’ and students’ freedom to teach and learn.
Resolving this conflict may sound simple, but it has proven complicated for other colleges. A recent article in The New York Times examined the debate regarding trigger warnings for college class content. Students from Rutgers University, Oberlin College, the University of Michigan, George Washington University and others around the country have expressed that they’d like policies requiring warnings in the classroom or on syllabi to alert students to potentially triggering content before the class studies it. Opponents of formal warning policies express concern that they could amount to a restriction on freedom of speech.
A policy intended to prevent traumatic triggering could be a slippery slope to a policy requiring warnings for any content that could possibly offend someone, such as books about racism and anti-Semitism. That would go beyond protecting the traumatized; it would promote an obsession with political correctness and give students an excuse to avoid studying anything that they claim to find offensive. A well-rounded education must include exposure to topics that make us uncomfortable. How can we expect to do anything productive to address societal problems if our schools let us refuse to study certain aspects of those problems?
If colleges and universities want to enact policies to protect traumatized students while still allowing academia to be as free, it’s going to be a fine line to draw and one that will be challenging to define. Administrators will need to figure out what separates content that requires trigger warnings from content that doesn’t. As the article in the Times indicates, that’s easier said than done.
There should be a level trust between the universities and its professors. We would hope that professors have enough sense to not only warn students if graphic or explicit content of sexual assault or violence are being discussed. Forcing professors to label courses dealing with traumatizing or controversial issues with “trigger warnings” will ultimately fail to further the dialogue on said issues, and only give students, and by extension the school, a “legitimate” reason to ignore those same issues. If we can’t talk about what the victims have experienced, we will not be able to understand what they are experiencing and help them through any difficult times they may go through.
In theory, using trigger words is not the way to go about helping people overcome their issues. We should be helping them overcome the traumas they experienced, not restructure academia. Using trigger words will create more hindrances than anything. Universities should have faith within their professors to be supportive of their students and lead productive dialogue related to the issues.