November 12, 2015

JONATHAN RAUCH: A New Trigger Warning For College Kids:

Though I’m as strong an advocate as you’ll find of free speech and thick skins, I feel some sympathy for the Yale student whose meltdown in a university courtyard went viral and fueled a renewed national debate over political correctness. Watching that painful scene, I’ve concluded that universities should provide “trigger warnings” about upsetting content, as many student activists demand. But not many warnings. Just one, and not the one they have in mind. . . .

In 1978, when I was a freshman at Yale, I watched with very mixed feelings as a student melted down in my political philosophy class. The professor had challenged us to name a proposition that is entirely certain, and a classmate ventured the certainty that we all will die, because everyone had died in the past. Pushing back, he said, “But how do you know?” After all, no amount of knowledge about the past can give any completely certain knowledge about the future. And then my classmate, encountering for the first time the icy Humean logic that ended human epistemological innocence in 1748, began to cry. I didn’t cry, but I felt the shock in the room. This was no “little paradise.”

So it is only fair to warn students and their parents that higher education is not a Disney cruise. Tell them in advance so they can prepare. Not, however, with multiple trigger warnings festooning syllabi. One will suffice:

“Warning: Although this university values and encourages civil expression and respectful personal behavior, you may at any moment, and without further notice, encounter ideas, expressions and images that are mistaken, upsetting, dangerous, prejudiced, insulting or deeply offensive. We call this education.”

Display that trigger warning prominently on the college website. Put it in the course catalog and in the marketing brochures. Then ask students and their parents to grow up and deal with it. And watch as they rise to the challenge.

Sounds good to me.

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