Once only prominent in the fringe corners of the blogosphere, trigger warnings now can be found on syllabi throughout the nation. A multitude of student groups and faculty has called for many colleges and universities to accommodate students who struggle with the after-effects of trauma, sparking controversy over whether or not the warnings are necessary.
As the discourse has begun to develop, many opponents of trigger warnings have been too quick to lump them into the nebulous, omnipresent scapegoat of “political correctness,” as if the concept itself is some sort of demon whose existence is at odds with the survival of liberal education. That is neither a reasonable nor rational angle to take. Adding trigger warnings to academic courses however carries real consequences — for both students and professors — that need to be taken into account.
Though trigger warnings may seem purely beneficial to students who have suffered trauma, normalizing avoidance measures may enable students to perpetuate emotionally unhealthy coping mechanisms. The National Center for PTSD claims on their website that “Avoidance is a common reaction to trauma. It is natural to want to avoid thinking about or feeling emotions about a stressful event. But when avoidance is extreme, or when it’s the main way you cope, it can interfere with your emotional recovery and healing.”
When avoidance extends into material that is required for class, it needs to be considered whether that coping mechanism is still healthy. While reasonable accommodation is something that absolutely needs to be provided (and is something that Kenyon has often failed at — e.g., the recent controversy over emotional support animals), solutions to mental health issues interfering with academics should focus on treatment that allows students to be able to do their work, not avoid it.
Putting trigger warnings on syllabi is a step toward legitimizing this avoidance and poses potential problems for professors considering what readings to assign. Students are expected to gain required knowledge from any given class, and if material marked as potentially triggering discourages students from engaging with it, professors could be left with fewer options to assign and overall course quality may suffer.
Many highly valuable novels and films, as well as factual historical texts, often explore themes of trauma. Professors should not feel discouraged from including these in their curriculae or challenging students with potentially provocative concepts.
Though trigger warnings may have a place at Kenyon, we must ensure that our standards of education are thoroughly preserved.
Toby Baumann ’19 is undeclared from Mount Vernon, Ohio. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org