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(Cinders McLeod for The Globe and Mail)
(Cinders McLeod for The Globe and Mail)

Trigger warnings: the latest threat to academic freedom Add to ...

Have you heard of “trigger warnings?” I’m worried that you will, and soon. The Los Angeles Times denounced them in an editorial this week; The New Republic, a left-leaning magazine, did the same in a piece at the beginning of March. Trigger warnings are coming.

Time was, a “trigger warning” might have indicated that Roy Rogers’ famous horse was approaching. No longer. These days the phrase denotes a growing tendency among North American university student groups to demand that professors provide advance warning about course material – books, films, discussion topics – that might provoke anxiety, panic attacks, or post-traumatic stress disorder in students who have been victims of abuse or assault, or who believe they are the victims of systemic discrimination. A few universities have even begun asking professors to remove said material from their courses.

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We are beginning to see a new era of correctness, in which the protection of a small group of students who might be harmed in an unpredictable fashion overrides the academic freedoms of university professors.

Ohio’s Oberlin College now has a policy asking faculty members to “be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism and other issues of privilege and oppression,” and to make so-called triggering material optional if it does not contribute directly to learning goals, or even to excise it. As The New Republic pointed out, Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe’s brilliant novel about the great harms of colonialism, Things Fall Apart, now carries the warning that it “may trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, and religious persecution, violence, suicide, and more.”

Last week, the student senate at UC-Santa Barbara (my alma mater) passed a similar motion, advisory at this time, asking professors to add trigger warnings to their course syllabi. In February, a Rutgers sophomore writing in the New Jersey university’s student newspaper called for a trigger warning on, among other works, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, because the book contains “suicide, domestic abuse, and graphic violence.”

One cannot deny the existence of racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination on campuses. Protecting Charter rights, as well as shielding students against physical assault and hate speech, are clear grounds for limitations on academic freedom.

Yet when trigger alerts are poised to affect the everyday conduct of postsecondary education, one recoils. Proponents of trigger warnings say they are not demanding censorship; they just want to give students the right to opt out of material that might upset them, even if the material is required (a conundrum they don’t explain). But it seems more ominous than that.

As a retired history professor, reading news reports and blog posts about trigger warnings made me wonder about many of the courses I taught at Queen’s University – “The Vietnam War,” “Drug Wars and Drug Cultures,” “Conspiracy and Dissent in American History,” and “The Price of Sex: Venereal Disease in Popular Culture since the 1880s.” Given what I see today about the new thought police, I’m amazed that I survived 37 years at the lectern without incident.

While pondering those implications, I took an unofficial survey of colleagues and friends – male and female, feminist and not – and found near total disdain for the idea that students should be protected from difficult topics, ideas and experiences.

University is life, they said, almost to a person – not some ivy-covered tower where students retreat from reality and faculty take tea at 4. Pithy comments of outrage and disbelief punctuated the main point that students have to grow up and take their place in the real world. Moreover, if nothing else, university ought to provide the means to achieve this maturity and, with it, self-reliance.

As a nurse in Kingston put it: “I am going to prepare a trigger warning for myself and recite it before every shift at the hospital. ‘Warning: death, puke, poop, phlegm, bile, pus, sweat, family discord, malingering, violence, belligerence, fear, withdrawal…’ Thank goodness there are people like me who face the real world and just get on with it.”

Yes, we live in an unmanageable, sometimes dangerous world. No, we do not need to protect our students from alarming topics. We need to “get on with it.” A good start would be for professors treading controversial ground to contextualize their material clearly – before, during and after classes – examining how they present topics and explaining why offensive material is an important part of the real world.

But the problem doesn’t lie with universities and professors. The problem is with some students, and the atmosphere they are being raised in.

A recent Atlantic Monthly critique of micromanaged children and helicopter parents who organize their kids’ every minute, fretting if they’re out of sight for more than a half-hour, makes the point that today’s children grow up to be more fearful and less creative than previous generations. Kids no longer are left alone to find their way, to invent spontaneous and sometimes risky forms of play, to confront and overcome unknowns, to do things themselves, and to fall, fail and get up again. Too many middle-class parents obsess on danger, even though research shows little increase over time in violence and accidents.

Here is a perfect fit and precursor of what we increasingly see at universities. This latest attack on academic freedom comes from these same children described above, now-college age. This is something new in higher education. Perhaps we should not be surprised that some of them bring to university the fears and concerns instilled at an earlier age. The indulged child is becoming the coddled university student.

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