Trigger Warnings: Not the Greatest Threat to Higher Education

January 08, 2016

After recent events at the University of Missouri and elsewhere, I wonder whether Scott Bass and Mary Clark, administrators at the American University, wish they had been able to see into the future when they wrote in The Chronicle back in September:

"We are experiencing one of the greatest threats to the university as we know it. It is not about enrollments, revenues, regulation, rankings, or leadership. It is about the ability to engage in unfettered debate at American colleges. It is about the assurance of intellectual freedom, about what can and cannot be discussed. … Colleges face criticism from students and others uncomfortable with the points of view expressed in the classroom and by individual faculty members."

The fear that hypersensitive students are threats to academic freedom is one with which most professors readily sympathize. The danger that comes from upsetting our "anguished" students is real; there is even scientific evidence that today’s young adults are less resilient than earlier generations. Faculty members who fail to respect those feelings may face severe consequences. We’ve all read the horror stories about professors who say the wrong thing at the wrong time and end up jobless.

Professor Laura Kipnis has argued that feminist paranoia is partly to blame: "The melodramatic imagination’s obsession with helpless victims and powerful predators is what’s shaping the conversation of the moment. … The result? Students’ sense of vulnerability is skyrocketing." Alternatively, Bass and Clark suggested that a consumer mentality is the problem; students feel "they are paying for the experience [of college] and should have a say in what they are exposed to and taught." The more they pay, the more entitled they feel to be not offended by what they learn. It is therefore unsurprising that, until recently, most of the highest-profile demands for sensitivity to students’ feelings came from elite institutions: Middlebury, Yale, Duke, Mount Holyoke, Wellesley, Princeton, Oberlin, Hampshire, Northwestern, UCLA, and Columbia, to name a few.

In light of this fall’s many campus protests against systemic racism, the claim that student fragility is the greatest threat to college seems like an overstatement at best. At worst, it may wrongly trivialize the cause, at the expense of confronting serious problems. What we have seen undermines the idea — popular among those who already chafe at political correctness — that students are asking for "day care" in place of education. Such an attitude often says more about the self-interest of those who resent the complaints than about the protesters themselves.

In addition to racism (and its counterpart, white entitlement), at least a dozen threats to higher education as a whole are more pressing than that of the sensitive student. Not least is an aversion to accountability among faculty members and administrators. Other issues include terrible public high schools, administrative bloat, unsustainable business models, crumbling infrastructure, shortsighted boards, the death (or suicide) of the liberal arts, micromanaging donors, students’ alcohol abuse, sexual assault, terrible salaries, politicians who criticize higher education to score points with voters, program cuts, unstable investments in endowments, ranking systems that favor rich colleges, shrinking birth rates among college-educated parents, out-of-control athletics costs, and the imminent death of the college-going American middle class.

Rather than pointing at our sensitive students, it would be more accurate for us to say that the gravest threat to American higher education is American culture. Most Americans simply don’t have the energy to worry about intangibles like professors’ academic freedom; they’re too busy trying to get jobs with living wages and health benefits, whether as welders or philosophers. It is perfectly human for professors to want to protect our own interests before those of students. The classroom may be the last sphere in which we feel some small measure of freedom and control. Without that, what do we have left besides better-than-average vacation time?

Is it really so onerous to consider how what we say might damage our students’ ability to learn? Many students in the past apparently accepted sexism and racism as facts of life; they expected to be marginalized by their professors — asked to speak for "all blacks" or shamed for being "distracting" to the men around them. Students today no longer accept those things, and that is all to the good. In light of this cultural awakening, we should happily make a good-faith effort to examine ourselves and #WatchWhatWeSay, especially if we are among the privileged, tenured, white, able-bodied elite. We should also be ready to stand up for our colleagues who are not so privileged.

Life everywhere is unstable and full of loss, as any adjunct or other wage earner already knows. Why should academic lives be any different? Instead of protecting ourselves, let’s do something radical and put student learning first. But let’s also be willing to take risks for the right reasons. Let’s tell the truth as we see it — even if it means facing censure or leaving our students a little bruised — and take the consequences. If we aren’t willing to do that, then perhaps the greatest threat to colleges does come from within after all, in the form of academics who are courageous only when we are certain it won’t cost us anything.

Kathryn D. Blanchard is an associate professor of religious studies at Alma College.

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