Killing the Conversation in College Classrooms


Gerald Maib

By The Easterner Editorial Board

Remember the good ole’ days when teachers would send home permission slips for questionable films like “Schindler’s List” or “The Alamo,” so parents could ensure their children weren’t subjected to any ideas they didn’t agree with?

Fast forward a little to the college years. College, the place where people go to become full-fledged adults and well-educated members of society. The place where the world gets a little bigger and the safety net gets a little weaker. Or is it?

Lately that seems to be a question on everyone’s mind. Enter the trigger warning phenomenon.

Trigger warnings are those fun little warnings that you see at the beginning of books, articles, videos or notifications from professors at the start of a lecture that alert a person to the fact that what they are about to see or hear contains “potentially distressing material.”

This could include discussions on rape, gang or domestic violence, slavery and so on that could potentially bring up memories of trauma to those listening. The term trigger warning is also used as a label for any information one might not agree with, such as different religions or ideologies that go against a person’s fundamental beliefs.

This is a trend that is rising at an alarming rate on college campuses, and while we understand why such warnings are provided, the question really is should they be?

According to an article in the Society for the Teaching of Psychology, “In addition to the request for a warning, there is often an expectation, implicit or explicit, that students be excused from course work that might be a trigger for them … Certainly, good teachers are respectful to their students … Nevertheless, many faculty argue that trigger warnings go too far in accommodating students.”

This means that students who take advantage of the trigger warning policies can opt out of entire sections of a class, and therefore, have a gaping hole in their knowledge of the world.

Do we really want to produce generations of people who can’t face the difficult subjects? People who close themselves off from the harsh realities of life because it is too hard for them to hear?

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) released a report in 2014 stating “The presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged in a classroom is at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual. It makes comfort a higher priority than intellectual engagement and it singles out politically controversial topics like sex, race, class, capitalism, and colonialism for attention. Indeed, if such topics are associated with triggers, correctly or not, they are likely to be marginalized if not avoided altogether by faculty who fear complaints for offending or discomforting some of their students.”

Trigger warnings and the fear of making someone uncomfortable not only harms the individual, but the class as a whole if a professor fears broaching a subject with their students. This is a higher education facility, and students shouldn’t be receiving the watered down version of the truth so someone doesn’t get upset.

According to the AAUP report, “Some discomfort is inevitable in classrooms if the goal is to expose students to new ideas, have them question beliefs they have taken for granted, grapple with ethical problems they have never considered, and, more generally, expand their horizons so as to become informed and responsible democratic citizens. Trigger warnings suggest that classrooms should offer protection and comfort rather than an intellectually challenging education. They reduce students to vulnerable victims rather than full participants in the intellectual process of education.”

We are adults, we need to face the harsh realities of life, not bury our heads under the sand and pray that all of the bad in the world goes away. People die, they hurt each other or get hurt, and the sooner we realize that the world isn’t all butterflies and kittens the better. We don’t mean to belittle the hardships of others, trust us, members of our own staff have things in the past they’d rather not remember, but it is far more important to see the world as it is rather than to coddle each other and keep them stuck in that place.

According to the Society for the Teaching of Psychology article, “There was no consensus among mental health experts that trigger warnings are helpful to students’ mental health.”

EWU has no official policy on trigger warning, and instead, leaves it up to the discretion of the different departments and the personal preferences of professors.

This is the way it should be, and while we understand that some have trouble dealing with certain topics, to close oneself off from the truth stunts one’s growth and ability to manage in the real world. Bad things happen, it sucks, but we can’t let it hold us back.