I’ve been thinking about the “trigger warning” phenomenon that’s rising. It has already risen in colleges and universities and is sure to become relevant to secondary schools.
As an example, according to an April 14th Inside Higher Ed article titled “Trigger Unhappy” by Colleen Flaherty, Oberlin College faculty were advised to “be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism… and other issues of privilege and oppression,” and to remove triggering material when it doesn’t “directly… contribute to learning goals.” Chinua Achebe’s brilliant novel Things Fall Apart was cited as one that could “trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide and more,” and therefore might be eschewed.
This perplexes me. Although teachers do not take the Hippocratic Oath, we do practice a “do no harm” philosophy to a degree. We construct our classrooms to minimize discomfort – physical and social – and do everything we can to create fair conditions for learning. But I don’t know that we can be asked to whitewash the content we have studied and learned so much from.
It’s a fact that characters in many novels worth reading do distressing things like fling themselves in front of trains and swim out to sea. We can’t change that, and I’m not sure we should try to.
As an English teacher who believes that literature – and the humanities in general – serves society best when it pushes and challenges us, I’m struggling with how to navigate this “trigger warning” business. And I can’t help but notice that what trends in mainstream culture and on social media is not nearly as sensitive as we are expected to be in schools. The gap between what is acceptable to talk about with and teach our children in schools and what they are exposed to elsewhere is widening.
In reality and in imagined realities, people suffer. They hurt – themselves and others – and when we read about that, we learn. I understand the rationale for removing stories that might “trigger” discomfort from classrooms, but I am unsure about how doing so will impact learning.