Trigger Warnings

by Stephen Joel Trachtenberg & Gerald Kauver

It begins with a potch on the toches – a slap on the backside. From the moment an infant leaves the birth canal, the world’s stimuli assault a child’s senses and sensibility, an intersection of bright lights, discordant sounds and raw emotions, warm embraces, soothing moments and tender feelings. As the child matures, in-between these sensory interactions, ideas will swirl around, come together a form a series of patterns and impressions, some comfortable and reassuring, others not so much.

The two-year old child asks, “why?” over and over again, her inquisitiveness most often encouraged by good hearted assistance – a shared learning moment, a patient reply. Natural curiosity directs the why to the how: how we each fit into some grand scheme or function in one’s surroundings. Questioning is an essential part of human development. A question typically brings an answer, and there is little guarantee that the reply will be what one expects to hear.  What makes one of us comfortable may discomfort others.

Given that both questions and answers change over one’s lifetime — and often far more rapidly, in days, weeks, and months. Few people doubt that the earth is round or that germs cause disease or that life forms evolved slowly over eons of time. We jump to conclusions in order to make sense of the welter of things, not realizing we are imposing sense rather than making reasoned judgments based on analysis and debate. Right and wrong are not often apparent or achieved by consensus — questions are tough and answers often as ambiguous as the words of oracles. The Supreme Court does not often conclude cases with a unanimous opinion; split decisions are common but equally binding.

We learn to live with ambiguity and uncertainty while struggling always to improve our understanding of nature and ourselves. As the Renaissance poet Denham had it, “Through seas of knowledge we our course advance/Discovering still new worlds of ignorance.”

Given the human capacity to reason and to understand, to investigate and analyze and conclude, why has it come to be fashionable for students at colleges and universities require “trigger warnings” of subject matter that someone might find unpleasant or upsetting while others find in the same subject matter enjoyment and enlightenment?  Which of us can predict which students if any might be upset or distraught or reminded of unpleasant experiences by the language of poems of love and desire (the literature of any language), so shattered by the graphic images of the human body (Art History), so unnerved by the atrocities of war (any course in History) or off put by the dissection of animals (Biology)? How can we as educators not offer trigger warnings before every assignment if our aim is to excuse students from being uncomfortable?

College is about upsetting the equilibrium; almost everything in the curriculum of a liberal arts college has the potential to be unnerving to some or many in a class. “Read with care: the poem you are about to experience may be unsettling.” Rather than issue trigger warnings at regular intervals throughout each class, perhaps colleges will include in their course guides or mission statements language that serves as a blanket yellow-light of caution and a restatement of the fundamentals of education.


When you enroll you will find yourself engaged in the search for truths in many disciplines and subjects of study; you will explore a variety of sources of information both current and historical. You will find yourself immersed and challenged – in and out of the classroom – by ideas, opinions, beliefs, images, music and sounds, stories, explanations, theories, hypotheses, attitudes and facts that may be different from those you have espoused or grown accustomed to.

Based on your upbringing and experiences you are likely to find some subject matter familiar, routine, or commonplace. You may also find some classroom material or discussions, troublesome, obnoxious, worrisome, inconvenient, distressing or even frightening. So will all your classmates.

Exploration of the known and unknown requires a willingness to embrace some measure of discomfort, to look all the facts in the face, and to resist drawing the most agreeable conclusion. If you are unwilling to embrace such a search you may not be happy here; if you are willing, we will do our best to ensure that our staff and faculty treat you with the same dignity and diligence they accord the teaching materials and methods they employ.

We honor divergent views, abhor intolerance, respect privacy, and make no judgment about personal beliefs. We request you do the same.

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg served as  the 15th President of George Washington University from 1988 to 2007. He currently is President Emeritus and University Professor of Public Service at the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration. 

Gerald B. Kauvar is the special assistant to the president emeritus and research professor of public policy and public administration at the Trachtenberg School of George Washington University. He has served as a faculty member at the University of Illinois, City College of New York, and the George Washington University.

One thought on “Trigger Warnings

  1. Dear Mr. Swail,
    This is the first time I have seen your writings called “The Swail Letter on Education”. As a retired Canadian teacher, I am pleased to see that you have taken the time and have the courage to hold the creators of educational goals and purpose accountable. Education should create a way of life that enables all people to become life long learners; not because they have to but because they want to. I believe that this can only happen when people are valued and are given the opportunity to pursue their goals. This calls for co-operation not competition. Success is determined by how people value themselves not by who has the most toys.

    You are to be commended for taking the time to bring the many issues you have written about to public attention and I believe that it will require a revolution, as you say, in order to bring about any change at all. Change is the most difficult action for a human to make.

    Keep up the good work!

    James John Ilchyshyn

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