For victims of assaults or other traumatic events, there are no “trigger warnings” in everyday life. Without any warning, a wafting scent, an article of clothing spotted on a stranger, a certain song that comes on the radio, a film clip that pops up on TV news — all might conjure up memories of a painful experience. Of course, so too might a verbal or written depiction of a similar event. Concerned about those situations, students at some colleges are trying to impose academic “trigger warnings” on books, legal cases, or lectures to alert students to references they could find traumatic.
It’s a compassionate impulse — a way of showing victims of sexual assaults and other traumas that their professors and peers are sensitive to their pain. But the benefit of sparing a student a painful reminder doesn’t justify the danger of a slippery slope: Far too many novels, poems, civic issues, discussions of historical events, and other staples of the curriculum could be branded with trigger warnings. “The Great Gatsby,” a novel routinely featured in high school and college courses, has been cited by a Rutgers student as deserving a label for “a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive, and misogynistic violence.” There is an obvious risk that professors will stop assigning works that carry such warnings, if only because a certain portion of the class will opt out. Meanwhile, some students who would never suffer a traumatic memory could be unnecessarily warned off of important works.
A better approach would be to make special accommodations for students with diagnosed cases of post-traumatic stress disorder, just as universities do for students with other conditions. (A student with PTSD could make a request in advance to avoid works that touched on certain areas.)
Students who advocate for trigger warnings argue that they are equivalent to placing content warnings on CDs, video games, or movies. But there’s an important distinction: Most people consume such media for recreation, not education. Students go to college for exposure to works they have not read, or perhaps even heard of, but that are deemed important by enlightened teachers.
No doubt some of the works assigned by professors will be difficult, or even upsetting, for students to read. But the higher education community needs to stand up for the fundamental principle that true learning can’t be separated from posing an assortment of difficult, and sometimes unpleasant, challenges. And students need to be prepared for the rest of their lives — when there won’t be any trigger warnings to shield them from possible traumas.