Baylor literature professor Alan Jacobs, who taught at Wheaton for 29 years, says he’s found it surprisingly easy to teach controversial material at Christian colleges. He says that “trigger warnings” are useless because they presume that the teacher cannot be expected to prepare his students for texts that contain troubling material. They presume a lack of trust on the part of students, of the teacher. It turns out, Alan says, that it’s easier to accept challenging material if you trust the teacher presenting it to you, and are able to believe that he has your best interests at heart. And this is a milieu that a shared moral community has an easier time achieving. Excerpt:
If you trust your teacher and your fellow students, then you can risk intellectual encounters that might be more daunting if you were wholly on your own. That trust, when it exists, is grounded in the awareness that your teacher desires your flourishing, and that that teacher and your fellow students share at least some general ideas about what that flourishing consists in. Which is why, as I pointed out in my previous post and as Damon Linker has also just acknowledged, colleges and universities with distinctive religious commitments can be more open to many kinds of challenging ideas — including those from the past! — than their secular counterparts. Shared commitments build mutual trust, and there are few things more needful for those of us seeking knowledge and wisdom in academic communities.
One thinks of political scientist Robert D. Putnam’s squeamish 2007 finding that the more diversity there is in a neighborhood, the less trust there is among the community, and therefore the less social capital. People become more defensive when they don’t know where the boundaries are, and don’t know if their neighbors share their values.
Alan thinks the “trigger warnings” business is destructive of the idea of education, and that its roots are in helicopter parenting. From a previous post:
I have a suspicion — and it’s only a suspicion: I cannot think of a way to confirm it — that certain current habits of the undergraduate mind are connected, in a perverse way, to the upbringing of today’s students. Young people who have had very little experience of unsupervised play, whose parents have hovered over them their whole lives, may easily come to believe that the core function of adults is to protect them from dangers. They may not discern the same dangers that their parents do, but the structure of their expectations remains shaped by those parental attitudes. So some of them — by no means all, probably not even most, but enough to create a stir — will lift their voices in outrage when potentially offensive books are assigned, or potentially offensive commencement speakers invited to campus.
Try to imagine some of the greats in the recent past having to teach in the age of trigger warnings. Says Alan, “Try to imagine Foucault obediently inserting trigger warnings in a syllabus.”