On April 3, 2023, the President of Cornell University vetoed a student resolution that urged instructors to provide trigger warnings for traumatic content that may arise in class. The petition, drafted by sophomore Claire Ting and unanimously approved by the Cornell student assembly, surfaced after Ting witnessed a friend become visibly distressed after reading a passage from Chang-rae Lee’s The Surrendered for a Korean-American literature class. The novel centers around the lives of three characters during the Korean War and features a graphic scene of sexual assault.
Pushback against trigger warnings has become routine in higher education in the United States. Like many of its adjacent institutions, Cornell’s opposition stems from the belief that such warnings threaten the preservation of total academic freedom. In practice, the principle allows faculty members the right to determine the content and methodology of their teaching, on the basis of ethics and competence. This tenet also ensures an institution’s role to encourage freedom of inquiry, even when students consider an idea wrong or offensive.
This sound and arguably innocuous call for “challenging intellectual engagement” is where content warnings’ harshest objections careen into the conversation. The critics, many of whom deem the warnings as “the coddling of the American mind,” argue that the ubiquity of trigger warnings reveals a younger generation’s unwillingness to grapple rationally with unpalatable ideas. Many fear the practice will cultivate fragility or shield students from discussions that might otherwise expand their knowledge.
Yet, the fixation on content warnings’ disengaging effect has proven itself largely unfounded. Numerous personal accounts and studies, such as one featured in psychologist Robert McNally’s Remembering Trauma, show that warned individuals are much more likely to forge ahead with the material instead of avoiding it. Educators who issue content warnings also rarely intend detachment. Instead, they wield it as a tool for select students to find an alternative path to grasp the material without experiencing intense reactions that overtake learning itself.
Many proponents also argue that trigger warnings can, in both intention and effect, restore autonomy for students who have experienced trauma. Such autonomy packs far more impact than simply being allowed to leave the room: it reinstates the affected student’s right to choice, and thus selfhood. Suppose we believe an individual with traumatic experiences can rationally confront the material they find difficult, distressing, or even repulsive. We then should also trust the same individual’s ability to make the most rational decision for their success—one that extends beyond the bounds of academia.
The educator’s audience has changed—and so has the world they confront. Within so-called challenging intellectual engagement lies the present education’s distinctive responsibility to acknowledge the tangible implications of trauma for all students, one that calls for consideration—not extinguishment—of living narratives in the room. If done well, that task should deepen conversations. Lived trauma resides beyond the insularity that is the novel, the play, or the newly published story in the Times. The story already surrounds us—it might as well be the closest version we have to truth. Content warnings insert real-life reminders of trauma within our cognizance. At the core, they serve as a collective reminder: what have these students been through? What should that mean for education as a whole? If an institution suggests that those are not questions worth asking, how should they expect their learners to engage, let alone engage truthfully, with the ideas and discourses that arrive with being an accountable member of today’s society?
At the age of high school, it feels like our understanding of mutual complexity and privacy is hammering its roots within our minds, inciting a feeling no longer startling, but with lingering poignancy. It was also in high school that I experienced trigger warnings’ imperfections. Some of my peers may even argue that they are often counterproductive, which begs new questions: How can we prevent overuse or misuse? Where do we draw the line? Do we dispose of the tool for its flaws or wait until an alternative arrives? It is critical to remember that we need not settle here. Like all things school-related, this practice remains open to drafts and revisions—and even complete rewrites.
In my experience, most teachers at Concord Academy err on giving content warnings when necessary; however, the school has not adopted policies around handing out warnings in class, nor does it offer specific faculty training or guidelines on the matter. In times with no shortages of top-down inferences, administration overreaches, and daily news on book bans, I understand the concerns behind what a definite policy could spiral into. Yet, I also wonder if it is enough to see this re-extension of choice as only a courtesy, reliant upon the judgment of the educator to provide. I worry, in an age of hard yes’s and no’s, that common sense may not be common enough.