What is the job of a college campus? To educate, inform, and prepare. To provide a diverse new environment where students can learn from an array of opinions and viewpoints. It’s the place you went with preconceived notions on life, the world, and pretty much anything. And then you had those notions broken down, scrutinized, and possibly realigned. It’s the place where you learn to see things just a little bit differently. And lately it seems that college has taken on another, additional role: one of protection.
Let me explain what I mean by this. By now mostly everyone is familiar with the Atlantic article: The Coddling of the American Mind, which speaks in length and in depth about the new initiative of certain campuses to “trigger warning” their curriculum; to tiptoe like a creeping mouse over certain words and materials that one may deem insensitive for classroom discussion. This is done, of course, in the interest of certain students who may be thought to have a traumatic reaction to “risky” things in the curriculum, such as racial slurs, references to sexual assault, or other things that may be challenging the areas of disability, gender usage, culture, or sexual orientation.
It is the wish of “trigger warning” supporters to make classrooms a safe space for everyone, regardless of race, gender, or background. But it speaks to this “coddling” mindset that the Atlantic article mentions. It treats college campuses as if they are a second home with second parents who have to protect their children from things they feel are harmful to their social well-being. College is supposed to be the place where one steps out from their parental household into a new world with new viewpoints. The curriculum is not designed to always be comfortable, but in its noblest form, to expose students to the world they are about to face when they graduate. The real world is a place that expresses itself, regardless of how you and I might feel. We can debate it, we can challenge it (as we should), but we cannot hide from it.
While attending college myself I did a speech on literary censorship in elementary schools. I am not equating trigger warnings to censorship in every case, but the reasoning behind it is similar. While not a proponent of censorship, except for extreme cases, I can understand more the desire of elementary schools to avoid exposing “young” children to things that they may not be ready for. The problem is, college students aren’t children. Treating them the same way as a five year old that just picked up a copy of a sex manual is not the best way to view curriculum. Most of them have been through sex, among other things. Many black students in classrooms (such as myself) have most likely at one point, experienced racial discrimination. Female students may have, at one point, experienced an act of unwanted sexual aggression. Other students may have experienced some kind of dark moment that can be aroused back to conscience by the lines of an author, philosopher, or public speaker. But is this any reason to shirk away from them?
No professor has a written biography of every student they come in contact with so as to markup “trigger warning” next to every instance of personal distress. They have to trust that the students, knowing fully the class they signed up for, are ready and mature enough to face the curriculum. Is it important to make sure that classrooms are open spaces: yes. Absolutely. But, should professors treat their students as absentee children, inspecting every Orwellian phrase or Mark Twain colloquialism with the utmost attention of a parent trying to make sure that their child isn’t splintered, grazed or beleaguered? We have to assume that sometimes there will be things that will make students uncomfortable. Once they graduate, students might feel uncomfortable in a whole array of places. But that isn’t a reason to ignore them in college classrooms. This is, of course, not to say that anyone should introduce curriculum with the intent of making students uncomfortable. But without the fear or trepidation that they will become uncomfortable at certain points.
College is supposed to challenge, not placate you. Through that challenge students grow in their understanding and also their preparation for real life. Hampering this only serves as a protection shield. And it goes beyond the trigger warning: it extends to abolishing speakers with a different viewpoint, trying to shut down debates, or take a contentious matter and constrain it to the point where the matter hardly exists anymore. College students are not your children to protect: they’re young adults who, more than anything, need preparation. Preparation isn’t always comfortable, but in the long run, it is necessary for the molding of tomorrow’s leaders.