Should we steer clear of PARSNIPs in adult education or learn how to deal with them? David Petrie, blogging as TEFLGeek explains that the acronym stands for Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Narcotics, -Isms and Pork.
Petrie’s focus is on teaching English as a foreign language outside the UK but dealing with PARSNIPs is a hot potato in adult education more generally as students – and teachers – in any group are likely to have varied backgrounds, experiences, opinions, prejudices and sensitivities.
Avoiding controversial subjects is one approach. It’s potentially less risky but it would inhibit meaningful study of literature, arts and humanities, especially for mature students in adult and community learning settings . Political education, health education and other important themes would become ‘no go’ areas if PARSNIPs were off the menu. The curriculum would lose richness and relevance.
Kate Nonesuch, a Canadian teacher working in Adult Literacy, is posting a series of blogs on the theme of using ‘trigger warnings’ in her practice, alerting students to subject matter which they might find disturbing or difficult to discuss with others because of their personal characteristics or circumstances. These posts are based on her extensive practical experience and describe how she works with her students to devise effective teaching and learning strategies to deal with potentially difficult issues.
Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt explore trigger warnings and “micro-aggressions” from a different perspective in a widely circulated article from the September issue of the Atlantic. Under the headline, “Coddling of the American Mind“, the subtitle says that:
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Lukianoff and Haidt argue that:
There’s a saying common in education circles: Don’t teach students what to think; teach them how to think. The idea goes back at least as far as Socrates. Today, what we call the Socratic method is a way of teaching that fosters critical thinking, in part by encouraging students to question their own unexamined beliefs, as well as the received wisdom of those around them. Such questioning sometimes leads to discomfort, and even to anger, on the way to understanding.
But vindictive protectiveness teaches students to think in a very different way. It prepares them poorly for professional life, which often demands intellectual engagement with people and ideas one might find uncongenial or wrong. The harm may be more immediate, too. A campus culture devoted to policing speech and punishing speakers is likely to engender patterns of thought that are surprisingly similar to those long identified by cognitive behavioral therapists as causes of depression and anxiety. The new protectiveness may be teaching students to think pathologically.
Writing in the Guardian, Jill Filopovic, a journalist based in New York City, adds to the debate on trigger warnings, using this description of college:
College isn’t exactly the real world either, but it’s a space for kinda-sorta adults to wade neck-deep into art, literature, philosophy, and the sciences, to explore new ideas, to expand their knowledge of the cultural canon, to interrogate power and to learn how to make an argument and to read a text. It is, hopefully, a space where the student is challenged and sometimes frustrated and sometimes deeply upset, a place where the student’s world expands and pushes them to reach the outer edges – not a place that contracts to meet the student exactly where they are.
Adult and Community Learning
Meeting students where they are and acknowledging their starting points is a specialism of adult and community learning with a social purpose. Embedding challenge and critical thinking isn’t an alternative to this but is part of a reflective teacher’s professional craft.
A trigger warning in adult education advises someone of a possible problem. It is not a stop sign or a veto, but invites further thought about managing their learning. Good adult education is not always comfortable but it certainly shouldn’t be traumatic. Used sparingly with common sense and sensitivity, trigger warnings can foster critical thinking and wider understanding, opening up discussion rather than reinforcing taboos.
PARSNIPs, especially the ‘isms’, are complex subjects and working in adult education involves intricate professional judgments and skill to maintain stimulating but safe learning environments for students and teachers.
We need to think about what we teach, how we teach, who we teach and what we can all learn from each other about free speech, empathy and responsibilities towards each other. It isn’t always straightforward or easy.