The University of Chicago made a big row over a letter that the dean sent to the incoming freshmen students by stating that the university does not support ‘trigger warnings’, disinviting speakers, whose views are opposed by many in the student body, and creating intellectual ‘safe spaces’, where people can retreat from views different from their own (Schaper 2016). For those, who are unfamiliar with the university jargon, a ‘trigger warning’ is when the professor warns the student before he brings up a controversial topic, which could hurt the feelings of the student, e.g. military combat, child abuse, incest and sexual violence. Many professors have reacted to the demand for trigger warnings by including the trigger warning in the class syllabus and before every new reading with the potential of requiring a trigger warning (Manne 2015).
Are there strong merits for implementing trigger warnings or does this heightened political correctness reflect the oversensitization of the modern student body? I would side with the latter case, but would actually find it more useful to reflect on the question of the origin of trigger warnings. One narrative we could spin is that the 1960s student struggle for inclusiveness and women’s, gay, minority, civil and disability rights had been successful, and that after so many years of pushing for more inclusiveness and rights, trigger warnings are the final piece of inclusiveness. How can I feel included if my feelings are violated by offensive reading material?
While I strongly support the traditional struggle for inclusiveness coming from the 1960s, it is difficult to make the case that not reading offensive material or having to be warned about them fits in this inclusiveness discourse. I have substantially benefited from a liberal arts and humanities education, and would have found it troubling if I needed to be trigger warned about potentially disturbing reading material. It is part of growing up and learning to be confronted with mentally upsetting content, so I find no problem with having no trigger warnings.
But to focus on the struggles of the student movement would be an overly demand-side focused approach and neglect the supply-side, i.e. the college administrators, who have consented with the trigger warnings. If we reflect on the political economy of higher education, there is no doubt that the increasing college tuition (and top administrative salaries and staff, see critique in Ginsberg 2011) and the decreasing level of state funding (or ‘neoliberalization of higher education’) has transformed higher education from a place of learning to a place of meeting customer needs. The higher sticker prices for most colleges results in the increased desire of administrators to give their students an awesome experience, akin to a Disneyworld amusement park. Massive investments go toward creating nice gyms, football stadiums, recreation facilities and ‘safe spaces’.
The formula is rather simple: no perks, no students, no money and vice versa. Of course, the administrator reckons, there are plenty of students who could care less about trigger warnings and political correctness, but the point is that even if a minority of students demanded that political correctness, it has to be granted because offending that group creates controversy, and controversy lowers the university’s reputation. An unsensitive student is unlikely to not apply to a university with high political correctness standards, but a sensitive student is likely to not apply to a university with low political correctness standards (and potentially influence their less sensitive peers in their application decision as well). So better be safe with high standards. One might say that students desire to be safe from harmful intellectual exposure would not have come about without the neoliberlization of higher education.
Among the faculty, there seems to be a split opinion with regard to the trigger warnings and the heightened sense of political correctness. Many professors themselves come from the most left-leaning part of society, and they probably agree with the ‘inclusiveness’ agenda of the student body (the older professors now were in fact the forefront of the 1960s student movement). But there are some faculty, who recognize the limitation of heightened political correctness, but would have to go along because administrators and vocal student groups expect it of them.
Administrators, who rarely deal with students personally or academically, don’t really care about the substance of the political correctness debate, but they do care about maximizing the customer satisfaction ratings that students and their parents give to the university. Given that there are so many universities, who compete for the education dollars of students, there is scarcely any administrator, who can afford to offend students. The University of Chicago might be a special case here, where the high reputation insulates them from customer fright. Try to replicate the dean’s letter in a less well-known college.
My argument can be summarized as such: while trigger warnings and political correctness may be characterized as the final part of the ‘inclusiveness’ agenda, the neoliberalization of higher education is another crucial element to facilitate the growth of extreme political correctness. Countries that retained strong public funding for universities (central and northern Europe) have equally expanded political rights to previously excluded groups (women, minorities etc.), but have, thus far, restrained from the latest stage of political correctness. It might be that trigger warnings are coming to Europe as well, and I lack the data on it. But the customer-orientation of the university ‘enterprise’ (no pun intended) has not fully seeped in there yet, and will be unlikely to do so as long as the state’s commitment to public higher education remains strong.