“Sensitive” College Students: Differentiating Between the Coddled and the Impassioned

Kiera McGee, Contributing Writer

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The September 2015 issue of The Atlantic published a cover story written by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt that provoked vehement discussion across the nation. The incendiary article, entitled “The Coddling of the American Mind,” expressed distaste for the ways in which college campuses have begun catering to students who demand mental and emotional protection from controversial issues.

Lukianoff and Haidt argue that this newfound focus on being careful in the classroom is detrimental to the concepts of learning and academic scholarship. They also argue that the desire to maintain a pure, politically correct atmosphere only serves to “coax students to think in more-distorted ways” and inhibits the development of critical thinking skills.
 
During a town hall meeting on Sept. 14 in Des Moines, Iowa, President Barack Obama decided to voice his opinion on the contentious issue, stating that he does not agree that college students “have to be coddled and protected from different points of views.” He advocated for an educational environment in which students are exposed to all sorts of theories and ideas without being given the opportunity to not participate based on personal sensitivity. Obama cited the boycotting of certain books or guest speakers as major flaws in today’s curriculums of higher education.
 
While I do believe that the classroom should include diverse viewpoints and tolerate the presence and discussion of all words, ideas, and people, I find it difficult to agree that the concept of sensitivity should be ignored entirely. Lukianoff, Haidt, and President Obama made compelling arguments for the dissolution of trigger warnings, which alert students to certain words or sensory input that may remind them of past trauma. I believe that it is necessary to draw a distinction between what is beneficial to students’ overall learning experiences and what is not.
 
For example, the first part of Khaled Hosseini’s novel “The Kite Runner” includes the violent rape of a young boy, described in great detail by the narrator. This book is taught to thousands of high school and college students each year. For those who are victims of sexual assault, reading such a thorough explanation of what happens to the boy may remind them of past trauma. Lukianoff and Haidt argue that “according to the most-basic tenets of psychology, helping people with anxiety disorders avoid the things they fear is misguided.” They neglect to address the fact that the professor is not a therapist. The classroom is a completely inappropriate venue for students to overcome their fears. If the professor were to give the class a simple warning about what is to occur next in the plot, students would have the opportunity to skip the distressing few paragraphs and continue with the novel; college-aged students are fully able to comprehend the magnitude of the rape scene without having to read the specifics and potentially relive any sort of pain. It is exactly this cognitive ability that should allow us to make use of trigger warnings when deemed appropriate.
 
The relevance of this issue relates to an event that occurred on campus a few weeks ago, when the fraternities and sororities decided to collectively boycott the “Drink Think” speaker, Rick Barnes. In an attempt at humor, Barnes made several racist, sexist, and misogynistic comments that offended many students. A large portion of those in attendance chose to walk out before the presentation was over, including myself. Barnes’s comments had nothing to do with his talk, which was supposed to be about alcohol and safer drinking habits. By leaving his talk early, I expressed my aversion to his unacceptable, backward views on gender and sexuality. I know that I did not compromise my education by refusing to allow him to finish speaking; there are certain issues that have less to do with political correctness and more to do with principle, ethics, and morality.
 
I understand that there are instances in which students are using the phrase “I’m offended” as an “unbeatable trump card.” It is crucial to understand the root of why students are offended. It is possible for diverse ideas and opinions to be expressed in ways that are both inoffensive and informative. Rather than deciding to swear off trigger warnings entirely, we should consider creating college environments in which all topics can be discussed with both tolerance and understanding.
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