Warning: 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!