No thanks, University of Chicago

A lot has changed in the past few months. I am now an intern, we are less than a hundred days away from a historic election, parts of Louisiana are once again under water, Epipen prices are more than quadrupled in price since 2007, and University of Chicago sent out a letter to its incoming freshman class disavowing trigger warnings.

The letter is one page long, welcomes students to the class of 2020, and then goes on about the significant value it places on the free exchange of ideas and viewpoints that is at the heart of the college experience.

“Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

The letter comes on the heels of multiple college campus protests at places like Smith, Rutgers, Oberlin, Yale, and Princeton and a recent NYTimes piece that linked a decrease in college fundraising to the protests. Notably, the disgruntled alumni they profiled were white men.

Without a doubt, the protests are a double edged sword, on one hand resulting as cancelled commencement speakers and on the other hand increasing awareness of present and historical truths such as President Woodrow Wilson’s racist legacy.

All of this has led to conversations about “coddled millennials” who “can’t take a joke” and value political correctness over true conversation. As a millennial myself, this persistent and incoherent commentary is frustrating. Either way, it’s in this atmosphere that the University of Chicago published it quite honestly baffling letter.

What does it mean to not support trigger warnings? Or safe-spaces?  The wording of the letter brings forth the idea of a strong academic who can discuss anything with anyone with the emotional distance of the ivory tower. It creates an impression of sitting on a grassy green and discussing the political milieu of the moment including a racist presidential campaign and multiple college and high school rape cases with an eye towards pure intellectualism that is inherently the benefit of a life that has likely not been marred by the smudge of racism, sexism, rape, etc. It paints a picture of the days before we had a more diverse college environment that went beyond wealthy white men.

Having gone to a liberal arts college myself where discussion of anything and everything made it a life changing experience, I absolutely agree that we should not stymie voices on campus. One of the invaluable benefits of a college experience beyond concrete class work is the diversity of experiences people bring to the table. It is the opportunity to take in myriad views, assess them against your growing opinions and values, and learn from them–the good and the bad.

That means bringing people to campus who have values that are dramatically different from your own: conservative or liberal view, economic position that are different from your own, positions about social justice that you do not agree with. Protesting those voices by effectively shutting down campus is counter to the purpose of college institutions. Protest the speech, protest by bringing in your own speaker to oppose that voice, protest by running an op-ed, but don’t protest by shutting down voices. It will get us nowhere.

But ignoring the value of trigger warnings and safe spaces in a changed college environment is a thing of the past. It ignores the effects of life on a more diverse college population. A trigger warning is a warning for people to prepare themselves for what is to come, what is to be discussed. What’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with allowing people who have experienced trauma to prepare their headspace for the discussion to come and be able to participate in it fully? Why do we feel the need to say that we are ‘coddling’ them? It’s genuinely not clear to me when people argue against trigger warnings what they are actually arguing against; is it that they want people to toughen up? Or they want to be able to say whatever they were going to say without thinking about how it affects those around them?

Discussion is still alive even with a warning, it just allows the people a moment to prepare themselves. Beyond that, asking for discussion to stop or be significant altered is not the purpose of a trigger warning.

In terms of safe spaces, well, the Northwestern president put it pretty well in his response to U of C in the Washington Post:

“…students don’t fully embrace uncomfortable learning unless they are themselves comfortable. Safe spaces provide that comfort. The irony, it seems, is that the best hope we have of creating an inclusive community is to first create spaces where members of each group feel safe.”

Classrooms are not safe spaces and campuses as a whole are not safe spaces, and I doubt they ever will be. But maligning safe spaces in their entirety again misses the point of what is means to be safe. Having a place where people can be removed from the stresses of constantly having to explain themselves, their experiences, and argue is extraordinarily valuable.

Lining up behind the idea that college safe spaces are the equivalent of swaddling an eighteen year old and will lead no understanding of the real world is just…ridiculous. The need for those spaces is because there is too much understanding of the real world. Understanding the need for safe spaces is as simple as accepting Maslow’s hierarchy. As we progress as an American people, it is a benefit we should allow to all groups.

This all leads to the question: what was the point of the Chicago letter? Was it meant to toughen the incoming first years up? Was there a secret trigger warning/safe space movement in the incoming class threatening to overthrow the school? Or was it to appease white parents and donors that their child wouldn’t be getting any of that liberal hoo-ha at this school?

Colleges are more diverse than they every have been which means a variety of opinions, conversations, and experiences come to campus. We should certainly foster that and not shut down different voices, otherwise we lose a huge part of the college experience, but the University of Chicago administration missed the point entirely. Their letter demonstrated that the school will not adapt to the changing environment, but rather will stand staunchly and proudly in the past.


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