On Trigger Warnings

Everyone's talking about 'em--like Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff in The Atlantic and Kate Manne in yesterday's New York Times.  The Atlantic article is interesting and no doubt trigger warnings are overdone in some quarters, but when push comes to shove...yes, I've been issuing warnings for many years (though without using the word trendy word "trigger").  For example, when I show gruesome videos about factory farming and slaughterhouses, I let students know ahead of time they may find the images disturbing and are free to close their eyes briefly if necessary.  When I teach the topic of death, and especially suicide, in my course on the meaning of life, I go much further, based on knowing that college age students are a vulnerable population.  I advise them to seek help if the topics of the course make them feel depressed.  This is appropriate, I've found. In fact, I've had students have to drop the class because the topics do occasionally exacerbate pre-existing problems. So, content warnings? Yes.

But why, in a world full of disturbing material, should a college classroom be a more protective environment?  For this reason:  Instructors have the power to say "you're going to watch this, read this, talk about this."  Students can't walk away, once they're enrolled, without serious consequences.  Also, in a classroom, they're not just subjected to material, but asked to interact with fellow students about the material, answer questions from the instructor about the material.  So their reaction, whatever is, gets exposed.  Beyond the classroom, people can avoid material they find disturbing, and certainly don't have to reveal their reaction to the material, or enter into conversations about it with strangers, or with people who react to the material completely differently.  If we're going to demand that students wrestle with disturbing topics, it's only considerate and responsible to give them fair warning. I would even say that in extreme situations, it make sense to let students opt out--for example, a suicidal student might be given alternative readings if the death section of my syllabus is too disturbing.

So yes, I'm for warnings.  One worry about them, though, is that they get issued with liberal bias.  We care about the gay student but not about the homophobe who's genuinely very disturbed by acceptance of gay marriage--yes indeed, there are such people, especially in Dallas, Texas.  We care about the person who's disturbed by the slaughterhouse images, but not the person who's disturbed by the message that "meat is murder."  We care about the female student who's been sexually assaulted, but not about the male student who's being charged with sexual assault without due process.  I probably need to work a little harder to be equitable when it comes to protecting student mental health, but should I protect student mental health?  Yes, I should, to the greatest extent I can, without compromising course content unduly--because of the power I have to force students to be exposed to and publicly engage with highly disturbing topics.


The Well-Being Trap

There's a pattern of thought I keep seeing. It goes like this.  You reason that X isn't really so important to pursue, because it doesn't necessarily improve our well-being.  Or you reason that Y isn't really so important to avoid, because it doesn't necessarily reduce our well-being.

Frank Bruni's column in the New York Times this past Sunday is part of his crusade against elitism in higher education.  He wants college-age kids to know they can do quite well in all sorts of colleges, so they will stop the intense obsession with getting into the very best.  I get this, up to a point, but is there really no reason to go to the best college you can get into and afford?  That's basically what he says, based on a new report on the way different schools affect a student's later well-being.  The Purdue index...
measures success not in dollars and lofty job titles but in graduates’ professed engagement in their employment and, separately, their assessments of their own well-being, as determined by their reported satisfaction with five dimensions of life: their relationships, their physical health, their community, their economic situation and their sense of purpose.
As it turns out, among all graduates, 10% describe themselves as thriving in all five areas; among students who go to the top 50 schools (as measured by US News & World Report), only 11% describe themselves as thriving in all areas.  No big difference!  So there's no good reason to go to Harvard, Stanford, or whatever you were hoping for?  That seems to be the idea.

Bruni apparently can't imagine someone reasoning that they want to go to Harvard or Stanford for the simple reason that they can learn more and develop better skills thereThe great faculty at these schools don't have anything outstanding to offer prospective students, he seems to think, unless there's a later pay-off in terms of a student's own personal well-being.  Knowledge, skill, creativity, and the like aren't goods worthy of pursuit unless they're well-being-enhancing.

My next example is going to involve disabilities, which Elizabeth Barnes regards as "mere differences" because a disability "doesn't by itself make you worse off." Like Bruni thinks the greater knowledge offered by Harvard can't be better for prospective students unless better for well-being, Barnes seems to think blindness can't be worse simpliciter, so to speak, but if bad at all, must be bad for well-being.  And she thinks it can't be shown that disabilities by themselves make people worse off, apart from society's failure to be accommodating.  We can't regard a disability as a bad difference because absence of an ability is intrinsically bad--it must be a well-being reducer to be bad.

I think Barnes and Bruni are both over-focused on well-being.  It's not incoherent to value and pursue knowledge as an ultimate end, instead of as a means to greater well-being. It's not incoherent to disvalue and avoid having a disability, because you see ability as a better thing, regardless of how a disability may (or may not) reduce well-being.  Well-being is not the measure of all things!