Trigger Warning: PC Culture is Devaluing a College Education

We’ve written extensively about the soaring cost of college and the impact it is having on the economic future of an entire generation. We’ve discussed the declining value of a degree, the result of costs going up and graduate wages staying flat. And we’ve bemoaned the amenities arms race at the expense of focusing investments to improve stagnant student achievement.

But there is another problem on college campuses that is eroding the value of a degree, and worse, corroding the critical thinking habits of young adults: Political correctness.

The most pernicious form of this movement is the proliferation of “trigger warnings,” a form of “spoiler alert” messages tucked into the beginning of potentially controversial material in order to alert the reader or listener that their viewpoint may be challenged, which could be upsetting.

Oberlin College is perhaps the best (read: worst) example of this phenomena, which treats college students like fragile dolls. Last year the school enacted a policy that advised faculty members to “[u]nderstand triggers, avoid unnecessary triggers, and provide trigger warnings” because experiencing a trigger will “almost always disrupt a student’s learning and may make some students feel unsafe in your classroom.”

But it is nearly impossible to fully predict what could be a trigger because the list of things apparently deserving of warnings is proliferating so fast that it’s lost all sense of meaning. As the New Republic wrote recently:

“The term spread with the advent of social media . . . Since then, alerts have been applied to topics as diverse as sexpregnancyaddiction,bullying, suicidesizeismableismhomophobiatransphobiaslut shamingvictim-blamingalcoholbloodinsectssmall holes, and animals in wigs. Certain people, from rapper Chris Brown to sex columnist Dan Savage, have been dubbed “triggering.” Some have called for trigger warnings for television shows such as “Scandal” and “Downton Abbey.” Even The New Republic has suggested the satirical news site, The Onion, carry trigger warnings.

To fully grasp just brittle our intellectual moorings have become, consider another report from Judith Shulevitz, who describes a debate between Jessica Valenti, the founder of feministing.com, and Wendy McElroy, a libertarian commentator, over the issue of campus sexual assault. It was no doubt a sensitive topic that could anger or challenge many listeners. But rather than subject attendees to the issues, a group of students created a “safe space” that was equipped with “cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies…”

It should come as no surprise that even liberal professors feel as if their ability to teach, which walks hand in hand with the ability to present material that challenges a student’s thinking, is being chilled. As one professor wrote recently for Vox:

“I wish there were a less blunt way to put this, but my students sometimes scare me – particularly the liberal ones. . .

Now, boat-rocking isn’t just dangerous – it’s suicidal.

This isn’t an accident: I have intentionally adjusted my teaching materials as the political winds have shifted. (I also make sure all my remotely offensive or challenging opinions, such as this article, are expressed either anonymously or pseudonymously). Most of my colleagues who still have jobs have done the same. We’ve seen bad things happen to too many good teachers – adjuncts getting axed because their evaluations dipped below a 3.0, grad students being removed from classes after a single student complain, and so on.

The professor goes on to write about a colleague whose contract did not get renewed because students complained about exposing them to the “offensive” writings of Edward Said and Mark Twain. As a result, he combed through his syllabi and cut out anything that could be remotely interpreted to be upsetting, including Upton Sinclair and Maureen Tkacik.

In so doing we’re eroding the underpinnings of education. How can we learn if we’re only surrounding ourselves with people who share our exact social, political, ethical, and religious beliefs? What good is conversation or debate if we only engage in it with people who already agree with us? Why aren’t we comfortable enough in the strength of our arguments and our viewpoints to subject them to some discussion or challenge?

Unfortunately, the spread of PC culture makes answers to those questions difficult to come by. So instead of actually engaging in a healthy dialogue about controversial topics we just ignore them, content to pretend that avoiding the discomfort of the debate is akin to making progress towards a better, safer, trigger-free world. And in so doing we make the soaring cost of college that much more pointless.