‘Trigger Points’ in the Teaching of Literature

A false alarm is being sounded in literature classes:

“Avoid unnecessary ‘Trigger Points’, provide ‘trigger warnings’ to students.”

What is a ‘trigger’?

According to the policy, thankfully being re-examined, at Oberlin, “a ‘trigger’ is ‘something’ that recalls a traumatic event to an individual…’anything’ could be a trigger.”

To help the student identify and release “trigger points” was not only one of the major purposes of my junior high literature classes, but also my writing classes. The trigger points, unrealized, if at play only subconsciously, are the culprits behind not only “reader’s block” but “writer’s block”, to say nothing of self-destructive behavior. Trigger Points are inspired by real and important fears, but they are finally love-killers, “blocking”, if you will, fogging up the view not only of ourselves, but also of the people around us.

The purpose of literature is to help us all “To Thine Own Selves Be True”, profoundly true, so that whatever wisdom we have can flourish and grow.

Otherwise, it won’t, and we all suffer.

Denial is self-censorship, and it is more destructive than any provincial reactionary school board. If those trigger points go unchecked for too long, all of us are in danger.

As much as we all personally hate pain of any kind at all and will avoid it at all costs—at least I will—if we’re acting like assholes, and don’t know why, we’re going to scapegoat or blame others whether they deserve it or not.

Ironically, it often happens right in the middle of literature class. The student too passive and withdrawn in class discussions who blames her low evaluation on the eager, assertive student who speaks out, accusing her of “dominating” the discussion. The student whose view of a loving relationship between a child and his father in a story is skewed cynically only because, angry at his own, he’s envious. The put-down artist who turns away from Catcher In the Rye, claiming boredom, because she refuses to see herself in him. The pedant,the snob, the cynic who rolls his eyes at a classmate’s sincerely exuberant expression of passion.

On the playground: The 12 year old boy running around calling everyone a fag because he has a crush on his best friend.

At parties: The bully who picks on the sensitive kid he wishes he were strong enough to be.

What piece of art, what novel, what subject, what shared experience, what “trigger” gives them courage to face themselves, their self-denial and therefore others?

“The Beast is us,” says Simon, in Lord of the Flies, which makes him an angel, because he knows. Self-awareness humanizes him. It humanizes those who read him—which is to say, see him truly, as he is–instead of turning away. “The beast is us” is a trigger point.

Keeping the safety on leaves us all assholes.

And not just for the sake of the shooter do these trigger points need to be acknowledged, and at some point, released.


  1. Bernie, thirty plus years later I am still learning from you. And now, with your blog, I get your insights for free! As a fellow southern Jew (albeit now a born-again atheist), I can’t tell you how much I–and my mother-in-law–appreciate the bargain.*

    If I haven’t written it before, I can’t thank you enough for helping to smack me into awareness. You, Bob England, and Carl Sagan were critical in helping me recover from the trauma of rabbinical indoctrination. Bless You! I can’t wait to read the novel!

    *Incidentally, you should look her up. Miriam Epstein Cahn. You would LOVE her. She has tales you should here.

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