Melbourne’s Monash University is set to become Australia’s first university to introduce anti-intellectual trigger warnings, an investigation by Generation Liberty has revealed.
Trigger warnings, which are alerts before content that could cause emotional discomfort, will be introduced in Monash course guides from Semester 1, 2017, according to university committee documents.
Trigger warnings have been used for issues such as racism, homophobia, disability, colonialism, torture, and, at Melbourne’s La Trobe University Student Union, body image, eye contact, food, and insects.
In this week’s Spectator Australia I write about the dangers inherent in trigger warnings:
The warnings change understanding, damage student mental health, and contradict the entire purpose of higher education: to challenge, not coddle, students.
I argue that trigger warnings are dangerous to the intellectual climate on campus:
If students continue to engage, the warning changes the understanding of the content. Trigger warnings skew perceptions by highlighting certain elements. In effect, the warnings tell students what and how to think about a piece of content, rather than allowing them to reach their own conclusions.
If students do not read the material or leave a class because of a trigger they will never be exposed to the ideas. This defeats the entire educational purpose of higher education: to expose young people to a variety of thinking, especially ones they find challenging.
They also carry serious mental health concerns:
For students who do not have pre-existing experiences, trigger warnings themselves encourage the establishment of fears students would otherwise not have. If you tell a student they might feel a strong negative emotional response to a piece of material it is far more likely that they will.
For students who have existing issues, the notion of trigger warnings, which encourage them to totally disengage from the material, could in fact make their fear worse. This is why psychologists use exposure therapy—that is, facing your anxieties, not avoiding them.
The underlying danger is that they encourage academics to give up on teaching discomforting material altogether:
In practice these warnings make it far more difficult to discuss sensitive content. Academics have begun self-censoring, avoiding teaching material that could cause discomfort for fear of receiving complaints or negative responses on student feedback. Two professors at the University of Northern Colorado were recently investigated for simply proscribing readings with multiple views on issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, climate change, and transgenderism. The academics were reprimanded by students not for expressing a contrary position, but simply for teaching that there is one.
One American university, Oberlin College, explicitly recommends that academics ‘remove triggering material when it does not contribute directly to the course learning goals’. In this culture, where academics have to forewarn about challenging ideas and face student backlash, it is much easier to simply not teach them in the first place.
Trigger warnings are a serious threat to intellectual freedom and the purpose of higher education, making their introduction at Monash counterproductive.
Matthew is a Research Fellow, Future of Freedom Program, at the Institute of Public Affairs.