Our Opinion: 'Trigger warnings' ahead


A college campus should be a beacon of openness in terms of free speech and thought but too often, as was seen last month in the latest wave of protests of commencement speakers who failed the political correctness test, it is the opposite. The latest regrettable trend on campuses is the insistence that professors provide "trigger warnings" to protect students from reading something that could upset or disturb them -- although that should be one of the key goals of education.

Virginia Woolf’s "Mrs. Dalloway" has been targeted for alert status because it contains references to suicidal thoughts. "The Great Gatsby" has characters guilty of misogyny, "The Merchant of Venice" contains anti-Semitism. A good teacher who knows his students should provide warnings if subject matter will hit particularly close to home for one of his or her charges, but there are few works in literature that won’t potentially upset someone, and the works that don’t probably aren’t worth reading. This is a form of censorship that if successful could spread like a virus.

Not only is there no hiding from the dangers and cruelty of life that is the backbone of so much great literature, there are tangible benefits to this exposure. In a recent Huffington Post blog entitled "Novels Do Not Need Warning Labels," author Lev Raphael, who wrote "The Edith Wharton Murders" among other books, described how his exposure to Wharton -- whose historic Lenox home, the Mount, keeps the spirit of the author alive for visitors -- provided him a "kindred spirit" when he desperately needed one.

The son of overly if understandably protective Holocaust survivors, Mr. Raphael wrote that he grew up feeling isolated from his peers and burdened by an overwhelming sense of shame. In Wharton’s "House of Mirth," he encountered another social outcast, Lily Bart, a fading socialite struggling for survival in the Gilded Age. Reading about Lily’s public humiliation and comparing it to his own, Mr. Raphael realized that his feelings were not his alone. Reading more of Wharton’s books, he realized that his sense of shame was common, if not universal.

"I had found fiction that explained me to myself and gave me a way forward," wrote Mr. Raphael in his blog. "If someone had warned me that Wharton’s novel could be upsetting or painful for whatever reasons, I might have avoided it, skimmed it, or turned to Cliffs Notes. I would have missed a book that changed my life."

Being challenged, upset or angered should be part of a college education. Students should not expect to live in a bubble that will not be provided for them upon graduation. Or want to.


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