Trigger warning: learning ahead!

Version 2Warning: this text is dealing with trigger warnings!

There is a constant increase of attention on the so-called ‘trigger warnings’ in higher education. Hamlet cannot be discussed in classrooms without a public warning stating that the following text is dealing with mental health and death… Forget about a free dive into some ideas of Greek philosophers or current challenges and crises facing humanity or our societies: there is much too much sensitive material. As a student may have the experience of a real and violent revolution it is safe and important to have a public warning before discussing Kuhn’s structure of scientific revolutions – the last word may cause trauma.

Some say that this is ridiculous, but the persistence of this new fad may signal something important for the future of universities and society.

There are wild parties, obscenely violent movies topping the charts, but ‘due to the sensitive nature of the material’, curriculum is reshaped and dried of any substance in higher education. The irony is that the main audience for all violent lyrics, movies, and narratives and all dangerous sports and entertainment is predominantly in the same age group that gets ‘protected’ within the walls of universities. Boredom is preceding confusion and frustration and paves the way for the kind of anger that leads now to the curious rise of political monsters across the world. New public figures have no warnings before launching into vile racist or discriminatory notes and… they are even more popular because of this! Youth is now much more attracted by atypical leaders, who have very little concern for cushioning political attacks or shaping strong arguments. Again, this is what makes them appealing!

“Trigger warnings” in higher education are just a euphemism for the shift of focus from responsibility and education to accountability and profits. Universities were turned in the last decade from institutions focused mainly on education and research into profitable enterprises with a profit-oriented practice. In this picture, ‘customers’ must be kept comfortable, unchallenged and satisfied – even if this is a massive cheat with a devastating effect on their prospects for the future.

Policies in higher education are shaped de facto by this unique rationale and logic: the international rating agency Moody’s released at the end of February 2016 a report on higher education (Global Higher Education Faces Period of Significant Transition) where we can read that “merged entities can benefit from increased enrolment, size and programmatic diversity, but they simultaneously face risks as they address the structural challenges that contributed to the merger”. Yes, Moody’s report is talking here about universities, not corporations or banks! The language of education is re-structured on Wall Street as academic capitalism is presented and maintained as the only viable option. Alternatives are simply dismissed as fantasies (good only for ridicule) by those who benefited directly by access to free higher education and a much more… educational experience.

The fact is that ‘trigger warnings’ exist now in higher education; we find them in various forms, some explicit and some just subtle and masked by bureaucratic structures and regulations. Some supposedly protect students, some protect hierarchical structures and/or The Organisation. Dissent or lateral thinking is exposed as an act that hurts all, and the heretic must pay the price. Invariably, the result is the suppression of genuine debates and a strong reinforcement of mediocrity. This is why the entire discussion on how much or how often teachers have to use ‘trigger warnings’ in universities and colleges is missing the point!

We are placed in a time when serious challenges require courageous decisions and agile minds; we stifle all in the name of ‘micro-aggressions’ or whatever different labels we find. Also, we can suspect that those who say that the current students ask to be cuddled and demand a pampered life are just using anything to justify their jeremiads and dislike of students in general. The truth is a lot more troublesome: too many universities don’t care about teaching, learning and the advancement of knowledge. These are difficult endeavors, involving serious challenges and for far too many all that matters anyway is the balance sheet.

The climate is warming fast (literally and metaphorically!) and political monsters are again popular, as cultivated ignorance placed all lessons of the WWII in some dusty shelves that are accessed only when some producers want to make another entertaining movie. Barbarians erase history and attack cities and symbols of human civilization and the massive walls of traditional universities fail to protect ideas and nurture minds and souls able to come with antidotes. Academics count now various things (publications, students, engaged students, failed students, grants and… whatever else can be counted). This is what seems to matter…

The real trigger warning is that higher education is very close to become irrelevant if something will not be changed soon; and that we have to fasten our seatbelts for a wild ride!

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13 comments
  1. Holly said:

    So true!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. seve said:

    Stefan. Point made. Absolutely spot on.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. seve said:

    Stefan. Good points. Spot on.

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    • Thanks!
      There were some errors in text… Sorry, they are fixed now. Adds are too annoying and distracting – I’ll pay a different plan to get rid of all…

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  4. Stefan, You have done it again…found just the right words to identify and describe an inflection point in higher education. In the US pushback on political correctness and legitimized hate speech and “monsters.” Couple this with the corporatization of universities and it is easy to be discouraged. There have always been nihilists (barbarians is another name). It is a species-long struggle.

    For now I will continue to be optimistic about the future of universities, because without them we all will live on a poorer and more imperiled planet. Thanks,

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks a lot, Michael! When we are discouraged the last forms of resistance are dead.. so I can’t agree more with your note. My optimism comes from the fact that universities still have some of the brightest minds in the world and I still hope that the tide will turn soon.

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  5. Let me start with a trigger warning; You probably aren’t going to like what I say:
    The reason that you have trigger warnings is that traditional education has failed their students and continues to fail their students and they are inappropriately trying to placate their students so they enroll and remain

    Traditional Education is historically:

    Institution focused, at best they tolerate their students, at worst, their students are an annoyance
    One size fits all teaching (lecture), that does not empower all students with adaptive learning and adaptive skills
    Unable to change; there is lots and lots of talk, but very, very little action
    Mired in paradigm paralysis…it works for us why should we change?
    Unable to provide relevant student success performance improvement outcomes that result in sustained gainful employment
    Over priced…un affordable for those wanting to enroll
    Focused on buildings, one size fits all elearning, multi million dollar student services centers, luxury dorms, landscaped grounds…the students success is an afterthought
    are reactive, not proactive

    When you screw the pooch this badly, trying to justify your student value comes out in all the wrong ways

    If they focused on changing paradigms and provided measurable student success results and affordable pricing they could be proactive rather that perpetually and inappropriately reactive

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I believe the same in all aspects… I always hoped the higher education will bring the innovation and will stand strongly critical to what we all are witnessing…but it seems that they have been eaten by the same financial order..sadly it is true…only a few individuals who think like you will still make a difference.. but for how long…?!…

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    • Good point, Mihaela! I don’t have an answer, but my guess is that we’re in for a big shake. This may change universities and bring back the discussion on what makes a university and what responsibilities are attached to the status of these institutions. Thanks for comment!

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  7. I am new here, but doesn’t this all make sense considering the trend in universities over the years to promote so-called academic freedom? By this I mean, higher education demanded its primarily and heavily left leaning faculty be allowed to use the classroom in the name of academic freedom for years, irrespective of whether or not the content being promoted had anything to do with the curriculum or subject matter at hand…not to mention the complaints of students, parents and alumni.

    Should we therefore be surprised at the rise of “safe-spaces”, student pressure groups that demand heads to roll if they don’t get precisely what they want or who they want kicked off campus…and of course “trigger-warnings”?

    Some 15 years ago I sat in a marketing class in grad school only to be lectured by the adjunct on the evils of George Bush and the Republicans. Ten years before that I sat in a “woman’s studies” class to be lectured on the merits of abortion on demand…when a female student took issue with that statement, she was utterly ignored and bypassed by the professor.

    I don’t know…I think the faculty and staff going back at least 30-40 years are to blame for the current state of affairs on US campuses. Don’t blame administrators or financial concerns….just look to your white haired colleagues and ask them why they insisted on controlling classrooms, thought and free speech for decades.

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    • Thanks Rebecca for your interest and effort to reply. I entirely disagree with your points: we can start from the simple observation that you have a curious (and wrong) understanding of academic freedom. In few words, I can say that it is the perfect opposite of what you present! “Heavily left leaning faculty” – to quote you – (or heavily right-leaning faculty – plenty of them in case you don’t know this… just read about Koch bros and their funding to right wingers in academia) should have no problem to present and DEBATE their perspectives, hear counter arguments, with no fear! This is why the darkest dictatorships across the 20th centuries suppressed academic freedom. This is what “heavily left-leaning” and “heavily right-leaning” dictatorships have in common: a complete suppression of academic freedom (in effect, of all forms freedoms after this step is perfected…)
      I was surprised to read your note and see that you don’t know this. Here I have to admit that you have some good reasons to dislike your teachers in college… Safe spaces were created in campuses not to suppress thinking and critique, but to encourage it! Only there was possible to critique without the fear of being arrested (read about the dictatorship in Greece and what happened when ‘safe spaces”, the only island of democracy, where drowned in blood!).
      The current state of affairs is that neoliberal fundamentalists impose a unique perspective: that education is a market that will self-regulate! The next step was to casualise academic workforce, scare them with the perspective of starvation and please the customers (formerly known as students).. and here we are: political monsters rise from the dead!

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      • Hello Stefan, Well, to begin, I know perfectly well what academic freedom is supposed to be…what it is in practice has been something else entirely. It has usually been reduced, whether on the left or right, to a dictatorial classroom experience for students. I used the heavily left leaning reference because in the case of my university it was absolutely the case.

        For myself, I totally agree that the classroom should indeed be a place for debate and perspectives. However, it needs to be appropriate to the subject matter being taught. For instance, why would a math teacher get on a political soapbox about anything? How is it subject matter appropriate?…Well, it isn’t. But I have known plenty of people in education who are less educators than they are activists and who see academe as an avenue for political proselytizing. Nothing worse to me than an activist professor. Hence the old adage that I personally agree with when I come across an activist educator…”Shut up and teach!”

        Perhaps you can tell me, but I have not found any “safe-spaces” created for anything resembling conservative thought and commentary on campuses. Its seems to be a novelty of the left…

        Of course, I don’t know where you are based or your age. I for one remember the professors back in the 80s and 90s…and the experience I had was replete with examples like the ones I mentioned in my first post.

        Today just as back then, faculty need to decide whether they went into education to be educators or activists. I long for a day when I can look around and see true teachers instead of politically motivated wanna-be classroom dictators.

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  8. Rebeccas comments are real and add fuel to the fire
    Add to this institution rhetoric that misrepresents the facts, along with an institution focused organization you have a perfect storm
    http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/05/opinion/sunday/the-real-reason-college-tuition-costs-so-much.html?WT.mc_id=2016-KWP-MOBILE-AUD_DEV&WT.mc_ev=click&ad-keywords=AUDDEVREMARK&kwp_0=112272
    When students = revenue (and they do = revenue) not providing the best student focused deep adaptive learning environment starts the student aggravation.
    The institution has created the problem, but they refuse to fix it and try to accommodate students in all the wrong ways
    Change to be student centric and accountable to relevant student success outcomes and you will see happier students

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