Anyone who has ever rambled through the undergraduate experience at any of America’s hundreds of colleges and universities has surely encountered something along the way that rattled their sensibilities or simply rubbed them the wrong way. Most of the time, it’s a course they wish they never signed up for, or a numbingly tedious required text they can’t wait to haul back to the bookstore once they’re finished with it.
There are some campus activists, though, who want to shear any of the rough edges off the classroom experience by mandating that “trigger warnings” be placed on the syllabi of courses where the readings, films, or whatever else they might confront in the lecture hall, could be upsetting.
It goes like this: Your American Literature 101 class is about to dip into F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” a common offering and a novel that, almost everyone agrees, is a supreme artistic achievement. However, according to The New York Times, a Rutgers University student suggested a warning “The Great Gatsby” contains “a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence” be served up before a page is turned.
Some advocates of trigger warnings said they should be used on such undisputed classics as “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” or “Things Fall Apart,” the great work by the recently departed Nigerian novelist and poet Chinua Achebe, because they deal with sticky issues like racism and colonialism. The Times reported a draft proposal at Oberlin College, about 180 miles to our west in Ohio, would extend trigger warnings to “anything that might cause trauma,” which is a pretty broad realm, and that instructors should be on the lookout for such bugaboos as racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism and, our favorite, “ableism,” in reference to those with disabilities.
Let’s be blunt – this is A-grade, politically correct silliness.
Many observers of higher education and more than a few instructors decried the whole notion of trigger warnings, saying they would stifle debate and the types of material that can be brought into the classroom. They’re right. How can anyone correctly predict, out of a sea of students, what might roil someone’s feelings? Would taking in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” bring back traumatic memories of parental divorce? Would Finny’s broken leg in John Knowles’ “A Separate Peace” send some sensitive soul into a post-traumatic spiral if it summons memories of when they fell off the jungle gym in fifth grade and snapped a tibia in two? There’s absolutely no predicting what might make someone, in a group of strangers, wince.
And though the four years that elapse between high school and “real” adulthood is not meant to be like boot camp, it’s hard to escape the impression that some of today’s collegians could handle some toughening up.
Mom and dad are always a phone call or text message away, and some parents don’t hesitate to call instructors to protest grades or plead for weekly updates on how their cherub is faring.
Part of adulthood is confronting things that discomfit you, and sometimes that is not a bad thing, if it confers greater insight or understanding of the world.
As the debate spread through the media in recent days, Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic magazine raised a good point – why single out classroom material for trigger warnings when it is, in fact, “more tame than what they encounter in daily life ... network TV shows, hip hop albums, standup comics and Hollywood films.”
The joke sometimes has it that this region is behind the times, but let’s hope this is one of those trends that bypasses our local campuses entirely.