The recent complaints from college students that some reading and classroom material shouldn’t be allowed without a prior “trigger warning” are for the most part silly. For example, the Columbia students who were full of outrage because one class required them to read some of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, where imaginary gods take amorous liberties with human women. The idea that Columbia undergrads must be protected against such writing is laughable.
But it would be a mistake to completely dismiss the concept, argues Monterey Peninsula College professor David Clemens in today’s Pope Center piece.
That’s because some students really have been emotionally scarred and a professor ought to take them seriously if they ask not to have to read or watch certain things. Clemens explains that in his teaching he has encountered cases where students had pretty compelling reasons for asking for an alternative assignment. A student who had served in Vietnam, for instance, did not want to have to watch Apocalypse Now, which is full of horrific (and, Clemens notes, not entirely fake) violence. Clemens realized, “I could actually cause a student to suffer on account of my choice of materials.”
Therefore, he has taken to offering warnings so that students who might be emotionally fragile won’t inadvertently be put in harm’s way. “I argue that up-front, students should be made aware that they will be forced to contemplate difficult material in general and in certain assignments. They have to decide whether the class is worth it,” Clemens writes.
That makes sense. Professors should be willing to contemplate the possibility that some course material could damage some students. On the other hand, it would be ridiculous to give student activists the power to veto material simply because they like throwing their weight around. Common sense ought to be the guide.