Regarding Course Triggers

Copyright © 2015 Bruce W. Hauptli

There were no "course triggers" for my courses because I think they are pedagogically wrong-headed.  The goal of undergraduate education is the development of critical thinkers--individuals who have the ability to properly assess a position and who are moved by reason (see My View of The Nature of A Liberal Arts Education).  Such an education must enable students to critically examine both the views of others and those they themselves hold near and dear.  In short, a core goal of an undergraduate education is that students become self-critical and self-reflective.  These must become enduring traits, and to enable this transformation students will, necessarily, need to critically confront and reflect upon their own deeply held beliefs.  Such a critical examination of one's own core beliefs (as well as those of one's family, profession, social groupings, and culture) is neither easy nor painless.  Indeed it is often one of the most difficult aspects of anyone's intellectual development!  But if one seeks to avoid such critical examination, one limits critical inquiry, and thus demonstrates that one is an uncritical thinker.  However well-intentioned their intents may be, those who work for colleges and seek to protect undergraduates from the pain of the critical examination of self-criticism and self-reflection may actually be interfering with the students' intellectual development.  At the very least, their primary concern seems to be with the preservation of the students' extant traits and beliefs instead of with the students' intellectual transformation.  While I suspect there may be cases where I could be convinced that the dangers to a student's psychological well-being need to be foregrounded, the centrality of the goal of promotion of self-criticism and self-reflection to the undergraduate education mean that "generic trigger warnings" are the wrong approach.  When students matriculate they join the academic community and accept the requirements a higher educational institution publicly announces--they do not get to make, or choose their own requirements.  Thus "course triggers," warnings, etc. are both unnecessary, and counterproductive.  They imply a possibility that some areas are "off limits" for critical reflection, and thus work against the goal of fostering self-reflection and self-criticism.  Individuals who want such triggers should find "indoctrination centers" where they will never encounter uncomfortable opportunities for critical self-reflection.  Students who truly want an education, however, are in need of no trigger warnings!  Faculty members, staff members, administrators, and trustees who believe there should be such triggers and call for policies enforcing that view need to recognize the seriousness of the intrusion they are calling for on the mission of their higher educational institution.  While serious cases of psychological illness might warrant counseling and more careful enrolment choices in the cases of some students, I believe the call for trigger warnings are actually not intended to address such cases as much as they are disguised attempts to limit the free inquiry which is at the core of all the missions of institutions of higher learning.  Given this, as I argue in my "Education, Indoctrination, and Academic Freedom," such individuals need to meet a very heavy burden of proof.  If one's proposal cuts at the very core of the nature of an institution of higher education, one will be hard-pressed to offer an argument that one's proposal needs to be adopted by such institutions. 

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Last revised: 11/10/2015.