If it’s been a while since you went to college, or you tend to avoid Internet shouting matches, you may have missed the latest debate roiling higher education in recent years.
Like freshman orientation, the debate is back for the new academic year, courtesy of a University of Chicago letter to incoming students.
First reported in Intellectual Takeout, the letter affirms a “commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression” where “members of the community are encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn, without freedom of censorship.”
To that end, the letter says, the school does not support “‘so-called’ trigger warnings” or “condone the creation of intellectual safe spaces,” two polarizing concepts taking foot in some schools nationwide. Nor does the school cancel invited guests “because their topics might prove controversial.”
All three are tied up in debate over whether schools are bending to the demands of overly sensitive students at the cost of academic freedom and the exchange of ideas.
If this is new to you, let’s take a step back.
What are trigger warnings?
Back in the spring of the Internet, trigger warnings were used on blog posts to warn survivors of traumatic experiences, such as sexual violence, crime, or torture, of content that might upset or “trigger” them.
“We provide trigger warnings because they give survivors of various stripes the option to assess whether they’re in a state of mind to deal with triggering material before they stumble across it,” writer Melissa McEwan wrote in 2010.
“We provide trigger warnings because we understand what they actually are.”
Since then, the concept has meandered far from its intent as a warning to trauma survivors. The broader public caught on to the practice, ridiculing the notion that people would ever want to be shielded from disturbing ideas.
Meanwhile, some professors and universities began to embrace trigger warnings in course syllabi and readings as a service to students. The scope expanded to racism, classism, sexism and other instances of privilege and oppression.
“With appropriate warnings in place, vulnerable students may be able to employ effective anxiety management techniques, by meditating or taking prescribed medication,” Cornell University assistant professor Kate Manne wrote in “Why I Use Trigger Warnings.”
Predictably, concerns ensued that students would miss out on intellectual growth that comes from facing challenging ideas, producing such headlines as “The Coddling of the American Mind” and “In College and Hiding From Scary Ideas,” in what one writer called “a shorthand way to complain about privileged millennials.”
As one of those articles declared, “Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.”
And, safe spaces?
Safe spaces emerged from a similar intention dating back to the post-Civil Rights era, when racial minorities, women and gays and lesbians became larger presences on college campuses.
Many remain today as refuges for like-minded people, where they don’t have to explain or defend their politics, beliefs or practices.
As Northwestern President Morton Schapiro wrote in 2015, “We all deserve safe spaces.”
He offered an example of black students declining a request from white students to sit with them at lunch in the interest of “engaging in the kind of uncomfortable learning the college encourages.”
“Those black students had every right to enjoy their lunches in peace. There are plenty of times and places to engage in uncomfortable learning, but that wasn’t one of them. The white students, while well-meaning, didn’t have the right to unilaterally decide when uncomfortable learning would take place,” he wrote.
He offered another example from a Jewish student who spent time at Northwestern’s Hillel house.
“I’m an economist, not a sociologist or psychologist, but those experts tell me that 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.”
To others, safe spaces are “the live-action version” of the trigger warning, with its own negative implications. Stories of new safe spaces popping up in response to controversial speakers on campus fuel the narrative of the squeamish millennial.
“Safe spaces are an expression of the conviction, increasingly prevalent among college students, that their schools should keep them from being ‘bombarded’ by discomfiting or distressing viewpoints,” Judith Shulevitz wrote in the New York Times.
“But the notion that ticklish conversations must be scrubbed clean of controversy has a way of leaking out and spreading. Once you designate some spaces as safe, you imply that the rest are unsafe. It follows that they should be made safer.”
To what end?
Evidence suggests that in the interim, the overall climate may be having a chilling effect.
In a Gallup survey published in March, a slight majority of U.S. college students said campus climate prevents some people from saying what they believe because others might find it offensive.
Some stand-up comedians have said they avoid college campuses, fearing that satire won’t go over in a “PC” environment.
Some schools have canceled speakers, from Condoleezza Rice to George Will to Michelle Malkin, under pressure from faculty or students.
Recent incidents at the University of Chicago suggest that balance is hard to strike, even at a school that takes prides in its dedication to free speech. This is the university that honored former Secretary of State Robert McNamara in 1979 for his “contributions to international understanding” despite protests and objections; where literary lion Saul Bellow worked for a number of years after declaring “Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus.”
It’s also the same school that suspended and expelled dozens of students in the 1960s for staging sit-ins. This year, the university came under fire after the student president claimed he was threatened with expulsion for taking part in a sit-in; ultimately, he was allowed to graduate.
The University of Chicago said the letter accompanied a book that each student received, “Academic Freedom and the Modern University: The Experience of the University of Chicago.” Sentiments in the letter echoed the school’s Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression, which was issued last year and includes an oft-repeated quote from former President Hanna Holborn Gray:
“Education should not be intended to make people comfortable, it is meant to make them think. Universities should be expected to provide the conditions within which hard thought, and therefore strong disagreement, independent judgment, and the questioning of stubborn assumptions, can flourish in an environment of the greatest freedom.”
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