Some university administrators may finally be seeing the light. At least, at Cornell University, where administrators just rejected the Student Assembly’s demand for “trigger warnings” in class.
In late March, the Cornell Student Assembly passed a resolution calling on the university to “require instructors who present graphic traumatic content that may trigger the onset of symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to provide advance notice to students and refrain from penalizing students who opt out of exposure to such content.” Basically, they were demanding that professors be required to warn students in advance of any possible offensive content and that students be able to opt out without facing any penalties or consequences.
Cornell just responded, and, surprisingly, shut the students down.
“We cannot accept this resolution, as the actions it recommends would infringe on our core commitment to academic freedom and freedom of inquiry, and are at odds with the goals of a Cornell education,” Cornell’s president and provost wrote in a joint letter responding to the Student Assembly. “It would have a chilling effect on faculty, who would naturally fear censure lest they bring a discussion spontaneously into new and challenging territory, or fail to accurately anticipate students’ reaction to a topic or idea. And it would unacceptably limit our students’ ability to speak, question, and explore, lest a classroom conversation veer into an area determined ‘off-limits’ unless warned against weeks or months earlier.”
— FIRE (@TheFIREorg) April 3, 2023
“Moreover, we cannot require that ‘students who chose to opt-out of exposure to triggering content will not be penalized, contingent on their responsibility to make up any missed content,’” they continued. “Learning to engage with difficult and challenging ideas is a core part of a university education: essential to our students’ intellectual growth, and to their future ability to lead and thrive in a diverse society. As such, permitting our students to opt out of all such encounters, across any course or topic, would have a deleterious impact both on the education of the individual student, and on the academic distinction of a Cornell degree.”
This is a fantastic response. As the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) pointed out, and Cornell apparently agreed, mandating trigger warnings clearly infringes on professors’ academic freedom and chills classroom discussions and debates.
Trigger warnings are also harmful for the many of the same students they’re supposed to be helping.
For one, they’re kind of insulting. Frankly, if you’re an 18, 19, or 20 year old living independently and in college yet you need to be warned about something possibly offensive being mentioned, you lack the emotional and mental fortitude of a normal adult, and should seek counseling to address that issue before pursuing your education. While college students are indeed coddled too often, the vast, vast majority are still not that maladapted. They don’t need trigger warnings and it’s condescending to suggest otherwise.
What’s more, trigger warnings may actually increase anxiety among students. Research shows that trigger warnings fail to reduce anxiety related to the subject material being presented and even may cause a small increase in anxiety compared to presenting the same content without trigger warnings.
“Believing you can be hurt by words can become sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff told the New York Post. “People are very resilient, but if you tell them they’re not, that can really undermine their resilience.”
So, Cornell deserves credit, not condemnation, for rejecting students’ calls for mandatory trigger warnings. Here’s hoping more elite colleges follow their example and don’t cave to the censorious and counterproductive demands of illiberal students.