The demand for trigger warnings on literature in college courses is not students’ seeking coddling but a reflection of the false universality of “great books” syllabi.
Is college itself triggering? A recent New York Times article presented a burgeoning movement on college campuses, involving students barely old enough for R-rated movies asking for course materials to bear “trigger warnings” — a message appearing at the top of, say, a blog post about sexual violence (or eating disorders, self-harm, etc.), alerting readers with whichever concern that the content may be upsetting to them personally. These, as Jenny Jarvie noted in The New Republic, began on some of the more earnest progressive blogs but have since expanded to new contexts on- and offline. The idea behind trigger warnings is to allow readers to avoid exposure to material they may find traumatizing, but whether trigger warnings’ main function in practice is to protect the vulnerable or attract the prurient is an open question.
As long as trigger warnings were associated with online content only, they were regarded as relatively trivial, but the stakes have increased as they have moved from discussion forums to the educational system. The students who want warnings claim to be concerned for the mental health of their classmates and are perhaps better-attuned than their professors to the prevalence of sexual violence on their campuses. They seem mainly want to professors to alert their classes before presenting violent or tremendously sexually explicit materials — a reasonable enough request. But they also, the Times reported, argue that professors should warn, for example, that The Merchant of Venice “contains anti-Semitism.” In a school paper op-ed linked to by the Times, one student wants instructors to come prepared knowing exactly which passages from all assigned books could possibly upset a reader — revealing profound but reasonable ignorance of what course prep for instructors entails. (“Professors can also dissect a narrative’s passage, warning their students which sections or volumes of a book possess triggering material and which are safer to read.” No, they probably can’t, if they also hope to sleep.) Some students at Oberlin wanted syllabi combed for “anything that would suggest the inferiority of anyone who is transgender (a form of discrimination known as cissexism) or who uses a wheelchair (or ableism).” Any literature that could possibly offend anybody — which is to say, any literature at all — would qualify.
The trigger-warnings-for-literature story gave something for critics of academia across the political spectrum to agree on. Conservatives, who already suspect that academia is a joke, were predictably horrified by this and latched on to the story to decry “the steamroller of political correctness” on campus. It also fed into broader anxieties about helicopter parenting and about the consumerization of higher ed. Putting advisory labels on books seemed to run counter to the liberal idea of education as a means of challenging young people’s pre-existing notions. Even many who are on the left politically — and I’m thinking of college professors — support the idea that instructors should have the authority to decide what students must read to learn. If some of the backlash came from a place of stodginess, though, most of it was about the fact that some find it quite simply hilarious to imagine having to enumerate everything upsetting that happens in literature and pinning that information onto syllabi. Several of the 1,359 commenters to the Times piece made that now-standard response to anything absurd, claiming to have confused the article with something from The Onion. One professor even developed a full-on parody syllabus, complete with targeted trigger warnings for the major events in American history. (For the Second World War: “No need for Germans, Italians, or Japanese — or their descendants — to show up. We won, they lost. Any questions?” Canadians, meanwhile, are advised to skip the class on the War of 1812.)
Because “trigger warnings” on literature are so plainly ridiculous, it’s easy to forget the possibly quite sensible place such a request might be coming from. I majored in — then went on to get a doctorate in — French literature. I’m Jewish, and in course after course, I began to notice all these Jews in French literature, all these conniving juifs, and their raven-haired juive daughters. They were moneylenders and social climbers, prostitutes and captive, aristocrat-seducing virgins. Background figures set apart from the real story, whose protagonist couldn’t possibly be a Jew. A person — someone whose experience could represent the universal human one — was, by definition, a straight, white, Christian man from a well-off or aristocratic family. Jews and other marginalized sorts might help tell the story of man but couldn’t be him.
I suppose I was “triggered,” in a sense, by what Voltaire and so forth had to say about Jews. Not traumatized, fine, but it is jarring to read hatred directed at the likes of you. There was clearly a disconnect between the “we” who were part of Western/French/“universal” civilization and meant to relate to the author, and the “they” who were … me. Why some people did and didn’t count as French, and by extension as human, is the sort of question that is regularly addressed in graduate school, but often they are thought beyond the scope of an undergrad curriculum.
The “Great Books” approach — the one many colleges and observers outside academia see as essential to a liberal-arts education — asks students to read texts, with very little sense of their original context, by and about a small subset of humanity, and to treat the content of those books as universal. Initiation in this corpus is meant to teach critical thinking skills in a way that reading from contemporary media sources supposedly doesn’t. Part of the goal is teaching students to confront challenging primary documents head-on. But it’s also about reinforcing the idea of a continuous West, with which every student is expected to seamlessly identify.
My own alma mater, the University of Chicago, has an intro course with the universal-sounding title Human Being and Citizen. According to the course description, students “read and discuss seminal works of the Western tradition, selected both because they illumine the central questions and because, read together, they form a compelling record of human inquiry.” While it’s also possible to take intro courses on particular histories (African, Russian, even “Gender and Sexuality in World Civilizations”), the universal — that which demands no justification — remains white and male as ever. Or take Middlebury’s English offerings. You might think any school with a course called Feminist Blogging can’t be all that conservative. But if you look at which creators get no-explanation-necessary courses (Hitchcock, Shakespeare, Faulkner, Nabokov, Stoppard …), it starts to become clear that even with the addition of the sorts of courses that so horrify conservative critics, nothing has changed in the overall terms of the discussion. The “universal” hasn’t budged.
Students who don’t see themselves (that is, female characters, characters of color, etc.) in books deemed “great” — or, more to the point, who see characters similar to themselves treated as less than human — notice this pattern and want to discuss it. But students haven’t been given the tools to address these questions. They don’t know where to begin when it comes to looking at the range of views at a given time. Nor are they likely to learn that even back in the supposedly uniformly un-PC then, the Others themselves often protested the very same arguments as ring offensive today. I remember being altogether stunned that, in the 1840s, French Jews had almost the exact same reaction to a certain essay I’d been studying as I did.
A student seeking answers to such questions may be directed toward identity-based “Studies” options (Women’s Studies, Africana Studies, Queer Studies, etc.) whose framework, while it addresses or anticipates students’ identity-centered complaints, remains shunted off apart from literature and the “great books” that define humans in the universal. The demand for trigger warnings, then, though impractical at best and silencing at worst, may point to a deeper and more appropriate response to having one’s difference made exceptional or invisible — the demand for trigger warnings is a demand for a change in the tenor of discussion around their required readings.
One might argue that trigger warnings fail only in not going far enough, and what is called for is the abolishing of misrepresentative Great Books course requirements. But there is value in a shared frame of cultural reference, which an evolving but somewhat stable canon can provide. Literary value isn’t entirely a construct, and certain texts – some better than others – have had undeniable influence on the society today’s college students live in. If nothing else, it helps to get references to famous books one finds within other famous books without requiring footnotes. So rather than cancel such courses (an unlikely outcome, given that these remain the standbys of undergraduate curricula, and that doctoral degrees continue to be conferred on those who’ve proven their mastery of that material), instructors should find ways to incorporate identity into such courses. But this means dispensing with the assumption that a white male perspective is universal and that any other is particular.
A better approach would be to look at the question of who gets to count as a representative of the human experience as itself one of the big universal questions literature helps address, rather than treat it as a distraction. After all, questions of power and representation are themselves just as big and open-ended as the others — truth, love, jealousy — one is meant to be looking for in a book that is deemed to qualify as great.