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4/21/19blog post

"trigger warnings" in college classes

My four years in college were emotionally turbulent, as I was challenged with ideas and issues that confronted my traditional Catholic upbringing. None of my strongly held beliefs were safe from analysis and criticism, both by peers and professors. I learned that believing passionately in something doesn’t make it true, and that good people can have very divergent viewpoints from my own.

I felt uncomfortable and intellectually anxious, trying to make sense of a chaotic world.  It was one of the most impactful and positive times of my life.

College is different today, as attempts are made to protect youth from the turmoil and pain that I experienced. Professors are expected to issue “trigger warnings” to alert students to material that might be offensive or unpleasant. Many colleges have gone to extraordinary lengths to discourage teachers from exposing students to such material so as to shield them from feeling uneasy.

These ridiculous trigger warnings are an extension of efforts to protect children from unpleasant feelings. The concern is that discussing a topic such as abuse or depression may trigger a reaction from a student who had experienced a traumatic event. Students could then avoid the material or prepare themselves for a potentially negative reaction. This essentially treats college kids like preschoolers, with overprotective adults shielding them from our dangerous world.

Research just published in the Clinical Psychological Science conducted a series of six experiments to examine whether these trigger warnings are effective.  The scientists concluded that “a trigger warning is neither meaningfully helpful nor harmful.”  Although used by over half of college professors, there is no evidence of any significant effect, either positive or negative.

The very idea of trigger warnings seems antithetical to a college education. What’s wrong with feeling distressed, challenged, and uncomfortable with a  different viewpoint? If material provokes a strong reaction, perhaps it’s better to learn how to deal with being uneasy rather than trying to protect yourself from the real world.

With the extraordinary increase in anxiety and depression among young people, perhaps even the discussion of the need for trigger warnings may contribute to the view that even idyllic college campuses are unsafe places.

Don’t be too critical of well-meaning college professors. They are just continuing what was started by overprotective parents of toddlers. Wise parents don’t try to eliminate distress from their kids’ childhood but rather help them learn how to deal with it.

Please allow your kids the gifts of chaos, ambiguity, and distress. With your guidance, they are more likely to develop into healthier and happier people.