The Atlantic ran a piece last week that’s sure to be controversial. The columnist focused on the rise among college faculty (though I’m sure this is happening in high schools too) of labeling syllabi with “trigger warnings” and offering students exemptions from material they find potentially, personally difficult to handle.
“Empathetically Correct is the new Politically Correct” (The Atlantic)
While political correctness seeks to cultivate sensitivity outwardly on behalf of those historically marginalized and oppressed groups, empathetic correctness focuses inwardly toward the protection of individual sensitivities. Now, instead of challenging the status quo by demanding texts that question the comfort of the Western canon, students are demanding the status quo by refusing to read texts that challenge their own personal comfort.
I understand the tension between pulling students into material that’s difficult, material they otherwise would not choose for themselves. I’ve seen Story work its transforming power in the hearts of students pummeled by their personal tragedies — abuse, neglect, rape, broken relationships, suicide, depression. I’ve also seen students start to shut down during a classroom discussion because I wasn’t paying enough attention or thinking ahead about how their interpersonal stories might mix with the literature to create a toxic environment.
The classroom should be challenging, enriching, even uncomfortable at times — but also safe, nurturing, and caring.
I wonder if one of the mechanisms at work is that high school teachers spend many more hours with their students, so they tend to be more naturally aware of “triggers,” while higher ed faculty (especially when they’re teaching underclassmen) may have very little knowledge of the individuals who make up their classes.
My struggling students were all Christian school kids in a place where we emphasized the Gospel, Grace, and dealing with the world head-on (not hiding from it). I saw my role as teacher to know my students well enough that I hoped I could divert a discussion before it truly became a trigger.
The foundation of teacher-student relationship formed the basis of a learning community that could actually work through tragedy rather than just tiptoeing around it.
Perhaps higher education fails to nurture a similar connection between the average underaged and her professors. In smaller colleges, professors can build those bridges and make quick adjustments rather than having to list out every potential “threat.” They can judge whether a student is actually being pushed over the edge vs students taking an offered excuse to avoid the difficult. But I can’t imagine a 50-student English lecture class having that level of relationship.
The old saying warns, “If you only own a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” I don’t want to imply that all problems can be solved by building relationships. But some could be averted.
We make rules and politics because we try to use procedures to fix what are essentially human problems. We’re all broken. The problem isn’t so much the trigger; it’s the need for humans to live within nurturing, caring communities where their brokenness can be healed, not condemned or exploited or — just as bad — ignored.