In high school I remember my english teacher handing out a list of “challenged books” to the class. These were books that various parents around the country had lobbied their child’s’ schools to ban because they contained offensive content. The list included many classics such as To Kill a Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye as well as books like Captain Underpants, which is a favorite of rambunctious little boys. Some books have good reason to be challenged. I don’t blame parents for not wanting their high schooler to read Fifty Shades of Grey. Even I am afraid of the content that lies within that one. Other books such as To Kill a Mockingbird are challenged because they contain bad language and heavy topics like racism and rape. I understand parents’ concern about their kids reading these books, but in the name of intellectual freedom we must not ban them. While the books tackle tough subjects, they are meant to teach people the evils of racism, help kids understand sex and sexual assault, and generally educate people on the cold realities of our world in an accessible way. This is the lesson I was always taught in school and I thought it was a pretty accepted fact in our society that intellectual freedom and facing hard truths are necessary if we wish to build a better world.
And then I was informed of the recent movements on college campuses concerning “trigger warnings”.
They go like this: Professors may assign a reading that discusses a topic such as rape, which could induce stress in a student who was previously raped. Therefore the professor needs to warn students about potentially offensive subject matter before it is taught so that the student can avoid mental anguish. While this specific situation may have some credibility, The Wall Street Journal does a good job explaining the more foolish aspects of these situations here.
This development is absolutely ridiculous. These are not little kids we are talking about “protecting”. These are adults who can vote, buy a gun, join the military, buy cigarettes, buy alcohol (some), reserve hotel rooms and get married. The idea that we have to coddle these quasi-adults to the point where we warn them if a book deals with homosexuality or issues of class should be beyond imaginable to any person committed to learning. I understand that a situation could arise where a rape victim would be traumatized by certain readings, but these instances should be accommodated using the discretion of the professor on a case to case basis. Trigger warnings, in contrast, start with the assumption that all students are potentially so fragile that any material beyond Dr. Seuss needs to be prefaced with a parental warning.
More dangerous than the trigger warning movement though is where it may lead if it goes unchecked. Today students are calling for warnings if a book has offensive material in it, but how long until these same misguided youths call for the outright banning of books at their universities? Protests this spring have already brought down a slew of commencement speakers such as Condi Rice, so why not get books ban as well? If it is “good” to bar Condi from speaking on campus because of her support for waterboarding, is it not also “good” to ban George Bush’s book Decision Points? And why stop there? Lets ban Jefferson’s writings. He did own slaves after all. We could go all day thinking of things to ban until the only book left in the library is The Communist Manifesto.
The only good thing about this whole situation is that universities are fighting back. Attacking academic freedom is even out of bounds for some of the most liberal professors. Maybe this will serve as a catalyst for our universities becoming actual centers of learning instead of overpriced daycare centers for petulant children who refuse to toughen up.