Columbia University Students Will Read Toni Morrison This Fall, But Not Trigger Warnings

Columbia University has decided not to implement a policy requiring the use of trigger warnings in class syllabi, following a heated debate on whether the practice curbs academic freedom.

Trigger warnings, or labels on a work of literature designed to inform students that what they are about to read may incite PTSD, have become increasingly popular in recent years. Classic literary texts such as J.M. Coetzee’s “Disgrace” (“Trigger Warning: This book contains scenes of colonialism”) and even “The Great Gatsby” (“A variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive, and misogynistic violence”) have been subjected to the labeling process at universities. Advocates of trigger warnings argue that their inclusion in course syllabi prevent undue harm and anxiety on students who have experienced trauma.

In April, members of the student-led Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board published an op-ed in Columbia’s student newspaper, criticizing the inclusion of a classic Latin narrative poem, Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” in Literature Humanities courses without also including a trigger warning for its depictions of assault. Following a routine review, the syllabus for the Literature Humanities was updated in June, and while “Metamorphoses” is no longer assigned, other texts, including Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon,” now appear on the reading list. But in its update, Columbia did not eliminate triggering texts or mandate the use of trigger warnings.

Roosevelt Montás, the director of Columbia’s Center for the Core Curriculum, explained that the inability to predict classroom discussions and a dedication to academic freedom negate the premise of trigger warnings in the classroom. “I don’t see any way that you can deal with the history of thought and politics and literature that we deal with without those issues being salient,” Montás said. “We are very zealous of guarding academic freedom and intellectual freedom of expression of professors […] so we are very careful not to appear to be acting in a role of thought police.”

The call for trigger warnings by students at Columbia fueled an ongoing debate over the practice. In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan responded to the objection to “Metamorphoses,” contending that “masterpieces, by their nature, pierce. They jar and unsettle. If something in a literary masterpiece upsets you, should the masterpiece really be banished?”

A recent online, nonscientific study of College Art Association and Modern Language Association members found 85 percent of respondents have not had students ask for the use of trigger warnings, with 63 percent responding that trigger warnings would have a negative impact on academic freedom.

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