Trigger warning: Students will have to hear new ideas.
Diversity enforcers have become speech enforcers on many college campuses, but a few schools are starting to articulate some limits. The latest is Cornell University, which has refused to adopt a student resolution that would have required “trigger warnings” anytime an upsetting subject is mentioned in the classroom.
Under the proposal, professors would have been required to warn students in advance about “traumatic” content that touched on topics like self-harm, domestic, racial or transphobic violence and homophobic harassment. Professors would have been even more nervous than they already are that any open-format classroom discussion or debate might wander into trigger territory.
The entire idea of a trigger warning for speech is antithetical to the idea of a university, and in a previous age no one would have taken it seriously. But this is the era of woke censorship, so it’s news when campus leaders push back, as they have at Cornell.
“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,” Cornell President Martha Pollack and Provost Michael Kotlikoff wrote in rejecting the resolution. Academic freedom, they note, means that professors get to choose their course content as well as how they present it to their students.
In recent weeks, Stanford University and Columbia University have had to tangle with students who felt triggered by exposure to conservative judges. Stanford law students shouted down federal Judge Kyle Duncan while Columbia students have called on the university to take down a social media post that includes members of the school’s Federalist Society meeting with Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. In both instances, the universities stood by policies protecting free expression on campus.
Cornell’s policy on free speech notes Cornell values “free and open inquiry and expression—tenets that underlie academic freedom—even of ideas some may consider wrong or offensive.” Research has shown that trigger warnings aren’t effective at helping people manage their anxiety, and including such warnings in an academic environment encourages emotional fragility and intellectual cowardice. It also teaches students and faculty to self-censor.
Cornell’s position is good news, but these bad ideas will recur as long as the diversity, equity and inclusion bureaucracy governs academia, pushing the notion that honest speech and debate are traumatic. If universities want to reclaim real intellectual openness on campus, they have to help students get comfortable with being uncomfortable.