To the UChicago Class of 2020
The Dean of Students at my school, the University of Chicago, recently sent out a letter to the entire incoming class. In it, he expressed our school’s commitment to academic freedom, promising that no member of our community would be censored for their views — no matter how controversial, and no matter how uncomfortable they make others.
Sounds like a pretty standard freedom of speech policy. But he also wrote this: “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited guests because their topics might be 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.” Here’s the full letter:
I think the gist of what he’s saying is this: UChicago’s administration will not follow the lead of deans at other colleges who’ve uninvited guests that students have complained about. That makes sense to me; I’m glad my university isn’t afraid of a little controversy or bad press. What doesn’t make sense is the stance on trigger warnings and safe spaces that comes in the same paragraph.
I see three problems here. First, and this is a problem I see a lot, the dean seems to think that people who support safe spaces want to make the entire university into an argument-free zone. A great many of us do not. It’s just that, as the dean admits in this letter, hearing opposing views, and defending your own, is exhausting — it might even cause “discomfort.” A safe space is one where you don’t need to have your shackles up, where you can express yourself fully and don’t need to defend every word you say. I’m sure the dean appreciates going home after work, and having, for at least part of every day, a private, unexamined life. When people ask that certain, specific places be designated as safe spaces, they’re not asking to spend all their time in those places. Those people, especially if they’re from races or genders or cultural backgrounds that are in the minority, are simply asking for the courtesy of a place to go home every day. On a personal level, I know that being able to spend some time in a safe place allows me to recharge. That makes me a more thoughtful, empathetic student.
The second problem with this letter relates to trigger warnings (they’re also sometimes known as content warnings). There’s an important point to make here — some people, for example, those who’ve lived in war zones, or who’ve suffered abusive relationships, or who’ve been threatened because of their gender identities, could actually relive their trauma because of things they hear or read. Trigger warnings are intended to protect those people from suffering, not to hide them from new ideas. And students like me, who are fortunate enough not to be traumatized, will not run away. Personally, hearing a trigger warning allows me to get into the right frame of mind for reading a serious, difficult text — to give it the brain space it deserves.
I don’t think professors should be punished for failing to give adequate trigger warnings. Since everyone is different, I believe it should be a student’s responsibility to look up the texts they’re assigned for a course, and talk to their professor or adviser if there might be an issue. But it would be awfully decent of professors to mention if a text is graphically violent, or deals with sexual assault, as part of a broader discussion introducing the text.
An example of how this might go: “We’ll be reading the Iliad, which was written by the poet Homer 2,700 years ago. It’s based on even older stories which were passed down orally. It deals with the themes of revenge, forgiveness, and being true to your word. I should let you know that it also deals with violence in a graphic way — talk to me if that might be a problem for you.” See? For the sake of people who, like me, feel weird about words they learned on the internet, I didn’t even use the word “trigger warning.” This doesn’t need to ruin the flow of an academic discussion at all.
One more note: the dean’s statement that the university doesn’t condone trigger warnings and safe spaces is…actually not true. During orientation my first year, we were given a presentation about sex and consent. Before the presentation, we were told that some things in the presentation might be very troubling, and that, if necessary, there would be counselors waiting in the back of the auditorium. In a potentially troubling situation, we were given a trigger warning, as well as an invitation to take a break with a counselor in a separate room — a safe space! This gives me hope that the administration doesn’t truly believe what’s written in the dean’s letter.
So to any members of the class of 2020 who may, by chance, be reading this: yes, your views will be challenged when you come here. Yes, it might be uncomfortable and exhausting. But there are people here who will love and respect you — who will take you, your feelings, and your identity seriously.