I was struck today by two very different discussions of safe college classrooms. At the University of Chicago, the dean addressed a letter to incoming students letting them know that the university would neither be issuing trigger warnings nor barring controversial speakers from campus. The dean was reclaiming the university as a place for free exchange of ideas and viewpoints. He laid the responsibility of dealing with the effect of those exchanges onto students, not the college administration.
I taught college literature for 30 years, and we read many distressing and difficult works. I assumed that my students were adults and were responsible for handling the emotions that such works aroused. I never denied the impact of things we studied, but I also never shaped my syllabus to avoid challenging texts. Occasionally a student would be overcome with emotions, as was one veteran reading poems from World War I. In such cases, I always let my students know they could take a break and quietly leave class for a while. Much literature is meant to unsettle the settled, stir the complacent and challenge the contented.
Meanwhile, students in the University of Texas are asked to accept the presence of armed fellow students in class. The same young people who need to be protected from the “triggers” of the violence in Macbeth are supposed to be calm in the face of actual potential violence from the student across the aisle.
My sympathy goes out to colleagues having to navigate the insanity of these contradictory ideas of safe classrooms.