I have been reading a lot of back-and-forth about “trigger warnings” lately. Students who see themselves as victims of discrimination and abuse are demanding that professors issue warnings about materials in courses they are teaching that might cause strong negative emotional responses in student psyches. And some administrators and faculty members are quite open to accommodating these demands. This willingness to comply is often motivated by a recognition of a significant shift in higher education, as expressed by student groups who are announcing their intention to “take back the university.” In the past, faculty decided what kind of course content constituted quality education. These days students are insisting that they, the consumers, ought to be making these decisions, and they will only “buy” those courses and programs that meet their self-defined needs and interests.
Actually, I have no serious objection to the idea of a trigger warning as such. Warning students ahead of time about things that they might have difficulties with in academic course seems to me to be good pedagogy. An obvious case in point would be a class in American literature where reading Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is one of the assigned novels. African American students in the course would clearly find in the novel expressions of the overt and widely accepted racist views in the historical setting of Twain’s narrative. That reading Twain—and more specifically, in participating in a class discussion dominated by the interventions of the white majority students in the class—could cause significant discomfort for African American students in the room is certainly an understandable expectation. To prepare the class with a preview of how the overall experience might be hurtful for some members would seem to be the kind of thing a sensitive teacher would do.
The problem is that in most of these discussions “warning” is a bit of a misnomer. Many people, both students and their teachers, argue that any course content that could cause some degree of emotional stress ought simply to be banned from a curriculum. In my view, that goes too far. Forbidding the teaching of Mark Twain’s writings as such? Or other books that might be associated in some folks’ minds with patriarchy, homophobia, or “colonialism”? This kind of thing can defeat much of what good education is meant to accomplish.
The trigger warning debates have not been a noticeable presence in my part of the world of theological education. But the underlying issues are certainly familiar. A case in point: I once required my students in a Christian Worldview class at Fuller Seminary to read Bertrand Russell’s Why I am Not a Christian and to write papers on how they would respond to a non-Christian friend who had been deeply influenced by the kinds of objections to Christianity expressed by Russell. One student angrily confronted me in my office, insisting that he would not read the book because the very title filled him anxiety. He had come to seminary to have his faith in the Bible confirmed in order to serve the church, and he was sure that reading a book directly challenging his convictions would, as he put it, “damage my soul and open me to Satanic influence.” He was paying good money to attend Fuller, he said, and he did not see why he should pay to be required to read spiritually dangerous books.
Of course, he was making his case more as a consumer than as a learner. He had his own reasons for coming to seminary and he did not want some faculty member telling him what he should or should not be consuming. And in that regard he represented the larger consumerist approach in higher education these days.
Without singling out my complaining student for special attention in class, I spent some time explaining the rationale behind my Bertrand Russell assignment. He came around to reading the book and writing about it, and toward the end of the course he told me that he had found the experience worthwhile. I’m sure that in his case he was telling me that it was worth paying the money for the course after all. But at least here was some move in the right direction in his theological pilgrimage.
I doubt that we can do much to reverse the trend toward academic consumerism these days. At the very least, though, we can recognize the nature of our challenges and find ways to engage in new forms of pedagogy necessary to take at last small steps in the direction of incremental progress. This requires, as I see it, finding ways to put the demand for “trigger warnings” to good pedagogical use. It was nice in the past for those of us in the academy to assume that students would accept our verdicts about what constitutes a good education. These days, however, we must be able to make the case for what we hope to achieve as educators. Finding ways to state that case may turn out to be a healthy thing—for ourselves as well as for our students.
Richard J. Mouw is president emeritus of Fuller Theological Seminary.