Safe Space
Credit: Rick McKee, Counterpoint / CTNewsJunkie via Cagle Cartoons / ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Elwood Watson

Amen to Cornell University President Martha Pollack and Provost Michael Kotlikoff for rejecting to ratify a proposal introduced by the student senate to mandate trigger warnings into syllabi and course content.

In a statement, Pollack and Kotlikoff said such a mandate “would infringe on our core commitment to academic freedom and freedom of inquiry, and are at odds with the goals of a Cornell education.”

Over the past decade, trigger warnings have been a topic that has dominated academic discourse. The term has become a major buzzword in academia as well as in many institutions outside of higher education.

Supporters of the policy argue that it provides certain students who are not as emotionally impervious as their peers the opportunity to be forewarned of material they may find psychologically hazardous to their mental well-being. Detractors see such an issue as a real danger to free speech and a severe encroachment upon academic freedom. Count me as a member of the latter category.

It appears we are witnessing a generation of kids who have grown up in an environment where many things are handled for them. Many are under the assumption they are entitled to choose from a smorgasbord of options and appear to have been indoctrinated with an “everyone wins” attitude.

In their largely scripted and insular worlds, professors are supposed to solely relegate their pedagogy to delivering safe and conflict-free lectures. They sometimes consider debating, discussing, engaging in critical thinking, reading complex or controversial material, and writing essays “too difficult” or unacceptable.

The degree of emotional fragility among some young people is troubling. It is a sad, if not an outright disturbing sight to witness.

I make it clear to my students during the first class of every semester they are no longer in high school. They have arrived on a college campus, they are now adults (a few are still legally minors), that life is not multiple choice though it can be somewhat true and false (which always gets a few laughs). Moreover, I inform them that none of us are going to be totally comfortable with everything we encounter or hear, and that as human beings we must be expected to acclimate to various situations and environments. Occasionally taking people out of their comfort zones can be a positive thing.

I am reasonable and sensitive enough to realize there are some arenas where such rhetoric is better off not being discussed. Would it be practical to discuss complex issues of brutal, violent warfare or graphic sexual violence to a group of elementary school kids? Of course not. But discussing such topics with college-age individuals? Absolutely!

Professors who decide to incorporate a statement discussing trigger warnings on their course syllabi certainly have the right to do so. At that point, the ball is in the student’s court, so-to-speak.

The fact is that life is occasionally full of challenges, unpredictable circumstances and situations. No one, not even the most fortunate among us, is going to be immune from being jilted by certain situations. Human nature will make sure of this.

Trigger warnings are potentially dangerous tools in that they can be employed and weaponized by people with various political and social agendas who wish to stifle debate or viewpoints that they are at odds with. Mandating such warnings would be a regressive and reactionary policy that could have a chilling – if not outright nullifying – effect on academic freedom.

Avatar photo

Elwood Watson, Ph.D

Elwood Watson, Ph.D. is a professor of history, Black studies, and gender and sexuality studies at East Tennessee State University. He is also an author and public speaker. His opinions are distributed by Cagle Cartoons.

The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of