I'm a Teacher and I'm Rethinking My Stance on Trigger Warnings After Students Challenged My Ideas

Reading is dangerous, but there's no harm in preparing students for the challenge.

A few months ago, I wrote a rather skeptical post about the increased use of “trigger warnings” on college campuses. A college education is about intellectual, personal, and emotional transformation, I argued, and this kind of growth is not well fostered by requiring professors to warn students before they encounter disturbing texts. Books like Augustine’s Confessions, W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk and even Genesis — heck, particularly Genesis — are potentially offensive in all kinds of ways. “If I had to warn students of all the murder, rape, incest, genocide, and betrayal” in these books, I wrote, “we might never have a quorum for a discussion.”   

Little did I know I had stepped into a minefield. Comments under the post itself were rather sparse, but my Facebook wall, or whatever that’s called now, sprouted dozens of testy comments on both sides of the matter from friends, fellow teachers, and former students. A few crack recent graduates I greatly respect took me to task for minimizing the trauma that some students might experience when reading certain books and misrepresenting the scope and point of trigger warnings. As one former student wrote, trigger warnings “aren’t necessarily blanket justifications for students to withdraw from their classes.” They are, instead, tools designed to help students who feel excluded or vulnerable prepare to engage with ideas more effectively.

The word “necessarily” gives me some pause: I would hope that these syllabus warnings would never give someone an automatic bye from confronting, say, the colonialism and racism in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart or the sexism in Don Giovanni. But as Kate Manne wrote in The New York Times in September, trigger warnings need not release students from their education. She includes disclaimers in her syllabus “to allow those who are sensitive to these subjects to prepare themselves for reading about them, and better manage their reactions.” The downside is minimal: “Those who want to ignore them can do so without a second thought” and the warnings may help other students understand that “some of their classmates will find the material hard going.”

“Once upon a time, paternalistic censors infantilised the reading public by insisting that reading literature constitutes a serious risk to its health. Now young readers infantilise themselves by insisting that they and their peers should be shielded from the harm caused by distressing texts.”

With this revised conception of trigger warnings in mind, I found fascinating the first three-quarters of Frank Furedi’s Aeon post, “Books Are Dangerous.” Furedi begins with the observation that “reading has been seen as a threat to mental health for thousands of years.”:

In accordance with the paternalistic ethos of ancient Greece, Socrates said that most people couldn’t handle written text on their own. He feared that for many — especially the uneducated — reading could trigger confusion and moral disorientation unless the reader was counselled by someone with wisdom. In Plato’s dialogue, the Phaedrus, written in 360 BCE, Socrates warned that reliance on the written word would weaken individuals’ memory, and remove from them the responsibility of remembering. Socrates used the Greek word pharmakon — "drug" — as a metaphor for writing, conveying the paradox that reading could be a cure but most likely a poison. Scaremongers would repeat his warning that the text was analogous to a toxic substance for centuries to come.

Furedi speeds through the ancient world and middle ages citing many examples of attempts to control what people read on the grounds that books can lead to depression, moral turpitude, irrational behavior, and even death by suicide. He then contrasts millennia of biblioskeptism to the rise of the trigger warning. “This self-diagnosis of vulnerability is unlike the traditional call for a moral quarantine from above,” Furedi writes. “Once upon a time, paternalistic censors infantilised the reading public by insisting that reading literature constitutes a serious risk to its health. Now young readers infantilise themselves by insisting that they and their peers should be shielded from the harm caused by distressing texts.”

[R]eading “is indeed a risky activity” as it “possesses the power to capture the imagination, create emotional upheaval, and force people towards an existential crisis.” 

It’s a tempting juxtaposition. But the narrative is flawed. Furedi admits that reading “is indeed a risky activity” as it “possesses the power to capture the imagination, create emotional upheaval, and force people towards an existential crisis.” Upheavals can be life-changing for the better, and crises can be productive, but both terms carry rather obvious negative connotations as well. Is it really such a bad idea to give students a heads-up when they may be about to wander into the beginnings of a "crisis"?

No one seems to be urging professors to remove books from their syllabi. Examples of requests for outlandish trigger warnings are, the Ovid episode at Columbia to one side, mostly speculative. And colleges and universities are, quite appropriately, not forcing faculty members to use trigger warnings. In the end, the matter boils down to some students who have endured trauma and request fair warning when a text might trigger them to relive that trauma, and some professors who think that such notice might be a good idea. What exactly is the harm of limiting the harm some students might experience when encountering a text? If trigger warnings turn into coercive demands on professors to change the way they teach, they’re a threat to academic freedom. But if they are a voluntary tool for creating a more inclusive classroom and cultivating a better discussion of a challenging text, what exactly is the problem?    


Steven V. Mazie is Professor of Political Studies at Bard High School Early College-Manhattan and Supreme Court correspondent for The Economist. He holds an A.B. in Government from Harvard College and a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Michigan. He is author, most recently, of American Justice 2015: The Dramatic Tenth Term of the Roberts Court.

Image credit: shutterstock.com

Follow Steven Mazie on Twitter: @stevenmazie

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.