Last week my column briefly addressed safe spaces and trigger warnings on my way to connecting academic freedom with the recent apology made by our university leadership. The response I received was not what I had expected. I thought it would garner reactions from those I called out in the article for being greatly offended by the way Andrews University handled the whole situation. Perhaps there was a reaction from that group on social media posts, evidently their preferred medium of discourse, but none were addressed to me. What was sent my way were concerns about if I truly believed safe spaces should be kept out of universities. Clearly from the responses I received, I made a mistake in assuming that most readers would side with my on that idea. Allow me to backtrack and explain this sub-point.
Last Thursday as I sat at the front desk of the English department, a professor approached me with last week’s issue in hand. He wanted to know how I, someone he knew to be a tolerant individual, could believe that students “don’t have the right” to safe spaces on campus. I replied, “Tolerance is not closing your eyes to differing ideas or opinions. It’s seeing those differences for what they are, and moving forward in spite of them.”
A fellow student approached me about the same topic. She was troubled with the idea that if trigger warnings were not given in the classroom, then students could be mentally hurt. She believed that if people were given a warning of upcoming tough content, they would brace themselves, but still carry on. Her idea was optimistic, one that I would want to believe in too had I not seen firsthand that the opposite was more likely.
Sophomore year I sat in a literature class that was part English majors and part general education students who figured a level 200 class with books written for teenagers would provide them with an easy ‘A’. After reading several easily-digestible texts, the next scheduled book was The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. The professor announced to the class that this text was going to handle tough topics including teenage drug use and sexual assault. He stated that some people might be uncomfortable with the reading, and thus made it an optional assignment even though the themes expressed were essential to the course curriculum. This direct trigger warning did not result in the class bracing themselves and reading on, ready to discuss these topics. Instead, the majority of the class did not read the book that, in my opinion, was the most compelling and well-crafted piece in the course. When the time came for class discussion on the text, those people who were evidently too soft-skinned to talk about deviant adolescents picked up their belongings and left the classroom. I fear this is what happens when people are given trigger warnings. They duck.
The consequence of warning people that their sensibilities may be agitated is the creation of humans who lack in the ability to critically discern. Lack of exposure only breeds lack of understanding. College in part is responsible for preparing students for the rest of the world. If you believed that you should be protected from differing ideologies while in university, you misunderstand the purpose of higher education. If students are protected, sheltered from divergent ideas, they will be shockingly ill suited for what they will find out there.