Cushman: No Trigger Warnings in Real World — Why Have Them in College?

By KC Ellen Cushman, Opinion Writer

Over the last several years, liberals have been labeled as fragile snowflakes, “triggered” memes run rampant online and the purported abuses of P.C. culture have become a central talking point for the right. The issue of P.C. culture and trigger warnings is especially relevant on college campuses, where the crossroads between free speech and protecting students from triggering content is constantly debated and redefined.

Campuses are more concerned than ever with the emotional comfort of their students. While this is often a good thing, allowing content substitutions for triggering content is a detriment to the academic value of colleges. Content substitutions make students ill-equipped for more than their future job search. These students will be exiting the university environment and entering one that’s less willing to accommodate their needs.


Decreased Academic Value

The courses students take in college are carefully and specifically designed to prepare them for their future careers. They utilize the best content available to give students an education that they could not receive outside of a college environment. The content within major-specific courses is often integral to their ability to work in that future field, but even gen-ed courses play an important role in delivering the well-rounded education students are paying for in their tuition.

Allowing substitutions of course materials will impede the ability of professors to teach courses that they deem academically valuable. It also allows students to miss content that is genuinely important to their life after school. As a political science major, my studies often cover a good amount of sensitive content regarding racial politics, gender and sexual assault. While these topics can be incredibly difficult to cover and are psychologically triggering to people who have experienced trauma related to them, we cannot avoid them completely. Not learning about these important issues with the most relevant materials will mean that students have a legitimate disadvantage and their degree will decrease in value, even though they are still spending the same amount of money.

Jack Halberstam, a professor of American studies and ethnicity, gender studies, comparative literature and English at the University of Southern California, believes that trigger warnings for content can be a detriment to teaching. “Too many warnings about content can also simply give the punchline too quickly, spoil the plot, lift the suspense and generally render teaching and learning dull affairs,” Halberstam said. He believes that simply giving trigger warnings is enough to interfere with the learning environment. Going further to provide content substitutions out of concern for student comfort takes this interference to a much higher level and Halberstam would likely see that as an even larger obstruction to his ability to effectively teach. As students, we are giving up our time and money to further our education and career. The best education possible should be the result of paying tuition, and the alternative is simply disrespectful to students’ educational investments and journeys.


Ill-Prepared Students

Allowing for content substitutions does not only damage students by decreasing the value of their education, but it also makes them ill-equipped to live and work outside of the campus. Campuses have a legitimate need to ensure student comfort and facilitate an environment where students feel safe discussing a variety of issues, but the so-called “real world” simply won’t make the same kind of accommodations. By allowing students to avoid material that makes them uncomfortable, even if they are uncomfortable for genuine and justifiable reasons, universities are giving their students unrealistic expectations of what their future life may hold. There are no trigger warnings outside of safe spaces on college campuses, let alone content substitutions.

College is often one of the hallmarks of young adult life, and it’s a place people attend to experience growth and new experiences while being exposed to different beliefs and viewpoints. This kind of growth and learning is, by its very nature, uncomfortable. Allowing students to simply remove themselves from situations that make them uncomfortable stifles the growth that is so intrinsic to the college experience.


The Middle Ground

Ultimately, I think it is important that universities strive to maintain a balance between ensuring a comfortable and safe environment for students and promoting the best education possible. It is important that students feel that they are in a protected environment to facilitate discussion and promote the general well-being of everyone on campus. Higher education, however, is ultimately about receiving an education. Achieving a balance between these two goals is absolutely possible. Professors who talk about triggering content can and should provide trigger warnings at the beginning of their courses, which will allow their students to adequately prepare for and get the most out of each class they take. Yet, requiring our professors to provide substitutions for potentially triggering content is a limiting factor on the value of our education and the ability of our college experience to inspire growth.

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