Don’t teach students what to think, teach them how to think. This is the Socratic Method or open forum, which is at the root of education. Trigger warnings, which are alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response, are becoming commonplace in U.S. colleges and could be the death of the current U.S. college system as we know it.
According to NSU’s 2016-2017 Student Handbook, “The university is a community of scholars in which the ideals of freedom of inquiry, freedom of thought, freedom of expression and freedom of the individual are sustained.”
Many universities have similar goals. Trigger warnings oppose those goals by creating a closed community where students feel unable to discuss trigger-sensitive topics.
One can argue that warning students about topics that may cause emotional responses is good. However, trigger warnings allow students to remove important topics from their curriculum and miss entire discussions because they feel offended by the content. As scholars, college students must be able to look at content objectively and analyze it to identify arguments, clarify them and refute or accept them depending on their positions, because that is part of the learning process.
According to The New York Times, a request to remove Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” was formally made by the student government at the University of California in Santa Barbara because the books portray racial violence, misogyny and physical abuse. The New York Times also cited similar requests from students at Oberlin College, Rutgers University, the University of Michigan, George Washington University and other places.
The request was made so that students who have been previously victimized by racism or domestic violence can choose to avoid these works they believe might “trigger” a recurrence of past trauma. What students are protected from is not threats or intended offense but important topics that people should think about, like why racial violence existed and how racial violence can be reduced.
The college experience prepares students for their professional careers in the real world by allowing them to explore concepts, become independent thinkers and better understand themselves and their community. College should give students an understanding of the world around them. The use of trigger warnings in college will not prepare students for their professional lives because it reduces intellectual engagement with ideas some may find insensitive or wrong. College is beneficial because it creates an environment where people can gather and share ideas, as well as listen to opinions that may differ from theirs.
The idea of an open community is based on free thought and expression. College functions because of the marketplace of ideas theory, which is a rationale for freedom of expression based on an analogy to the economic concept of a free market. The marketplace of ideas holds that the truth will emerge from the competition of ideas in free, transparent public discourse.
However, trigger warnings create a scenario where offense becomes a trump card that those who feel offended can use to escape any discussion or lecture. This in no way creates an open community of discussion. Instead it coddles students. Coddling does not prepare students for the future or help them discover “truth;” it conditions students to become unresponsive to society and unable to develop and defend their own positons on important issues.
College classes are fluid. Students lead the discourse, and one class session can span a wide range of topics. Classes go on an academic journey together. Imagine one car with anywhere from two to 30 drivers sharing the wheel. It is impossible to ensure that students will never feel uncomfortable when entering a class because lessons are fluid and offense is subjective.
Trigger warnings lead to community censorship, which is the suppression of speech or writing that is deemed obscene, indecent or unduly controversial. This can then lead to self-censorship. If students can’t explore challenging topics in college, where can they?
Censoring thought kills discussion, which is essential to gaining knowledge and solving problems. We can’t solve problems in our society if we can’t talk about them. Students should be eager to discover the problems of the world and fix them, not be offended by them or scared to offend others by talking about them.
When a college becomes a place of censorship, we should be scared because U.S. history and the protection of individual rights depend on free speech. Instead of shielding students from words, students should learn to understand and utilize words. Colleges need to have open discourse because that is what builds strong, diverse and tolerant communities.