Six teen suicides. Three years. This heartbreaking statistic would be intolerable if it represented a county, inconceivable if it represented a city. But this statistic represents a single high school, where I was a student when the majority of these suicides occurred — two of them only two days apart.
Thrown into a panic, parents and administrators struggled to comprehend this tragedy and figure out how to prevent “suicide contagion” from spreading further. They turned from blaming the stressful academic environment to the content of the school curriculum. Anything, they feared, could set off another suicide. All of a sudden, Lennie’s death in “Of Mice and Men” was too horrific to be read. Romeo and Juliet’s forbidden tryst was struck from the syllabus because it featured two young people who committed suicide.
The media tends to situate trigger warnings in the context of colleges and universities, but the same debate has played out for much longer in secondary education. Parents of high school students are increasingly vocal about what should be taught or done in schools, fueling the trope of the obsessive “helicopter parent.” In the aftermath of the suicides at my school, it was anxious parents who agitated for a form of “trigger-conscious” censorship — in essence, the erasure of violence and other sensitive subjects from the curriculum.
The implementation of “trigger warnings” looks completely different at the high school level than at a college. The actors tend to be parents lodging complaints with teachers, rather than student activists. Students usually have little say in these disputes and naturally comply with the outcome. If censorship in the curriculum occurs, they won’t notice; they often lack the background to understand what is at stake, much less influence it. Yet they are the ones who stand to lose if teachers acquiesce to the less-than-informed demands of parents and administrators. To offer an example, a teacher at my school was asked by a parent not to assign “Lord of the Flies” because her daughter loved animals and might be upset by its graphic depiction of a murdered pig — although the murder of humans in the same novel was apparently anodyne.
Unfortunately, this sensitivity can result in the wholesale erasure of all potentially triggering material — not only the racism and misogyny of “outdated” works that have come under fire from liberal college students, but also the literature of diverse authors like Toni Morrison. Most trigger warning advocates would probably assert that Toni Morrison is a must-read for today’s student, especially against the backdrop of an all-male, all-white Western canon. However, a teacher at my school was asked this year not to teach “Beloved” because of its sexually explicit scenes. Young adults who do not enjoy the freedom of elite Ivy League students are denied what might be their only chance to access diverse and seminal works like the ones I have mentioned.
One of the beautiful truths of literature is that victimization finds its voice in the power of language. When graphic language reflects the reality of violence, it empowers others to make sense of tragedy. Seeking to “protect” students from this discovery only cripples them, preventing them from considering perspectives beyond their personal experience: the whole point of a liberal-arts education.
As such, knee-jerk paranoia is an inappropriate pedagogical response to trauma. It is the responsibility of the teacher to make the classroom a safe environment for students to explore issues like suicide through honest, thoughtful discussion. There is very little evidence that trigger warnings improve mental health outcomes for vulnerable students. If anything, this brand of censorship catastrophizes emotionally fraught topics wherever they appear, depriving students of the perspective needed to grapple with these topics maturely. That’s not a balm for trauma; it’s a recipe for even more psychological distress.
Given the high incidence of mental health issues among young people today, they urgently need to learn to process and discuss trauma, before they enter college both intellectually cloistered and emotionally unprepared. Therefore, Yalies must remember that our debates over censorship in the academy do not exist in a vacuum. Our pedagogical norms eventually trickle down to secondary education, and when they do, they can have ramifications far beyond the innocuous “N.B.” on a college syllabus.
Perhaps the fear of “suicide contagion” did motivate protective policies like trigger warnings. But fear cannot tyrannize college campuses or secondary school classrooms. Well-intentioned though they may be, trigger warnings promise to enervate high school curricula and deny students the resources they need to cope with “triggering” material in the first place.
What’s in a name? Don’t decide for your kids. Hand them a copy of “Romeo and Juliet” instead.
Sherry Lee is a junior in Ezra Stiles College. Her column runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .