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Top university tells new students: No trigger warnings or intellectual safe spaces

A letter to freshmen from the University of Chicago is reigniting the discussion over trigger warnings in classes and safe spaces on campus. In its letter, the prestigious  university cautions:

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 university is not the first to questions trigger warnings and safe spaces. But the practices have support.

Some professors employ trigger warnings to alert students there may be material in the class that could be upsetting to victims of abuse or trauma. You can read a defense of trigger warnings here by a professor who explains, "At least some of the students in any given class of mine are likely to have suffered some sort of trauma, whether from sexual assault or another type of abuse or violence. So I think the benefits of trigger warnings can be significant."

Safe spaces entered the vernacular as a result of recent Black Lives Matter protests where student protesters sought refuges on campus where they could meet and find strength through others sharing their life experiences. In this essay, Morton Schapiro, president of Northwestern University, said giving students in the Black Lives movement a safe space was no different from the longstanding Hillel house for Jewish students or  the Catholic Center for Catholic students.

The University of Chicago stance is garnering praise online, but I found a dissenting response from a professor. Here is an excerpt:

As a faculty member, I would be enormously dismayed if my dean sent this letter to my incoming students. Because now they’ll come into my class already having received a clear message about what my institution seems to value - and it isn’t them. The Chicago letter reeks of arrogance, of a sense of entitlement, of an exclusionary mindset; in other words, the very things it seeks to inveigh against. It’s not about academic freedom, it’s about power. Know your place, and acknowledge ours, it tells the students. We’ll be the judge of what you need to know and how you need to know it. And professors and students are thus handcuffed to a high-stakes ideological creed. Do it this way, in the name of all that is holy and true in the academy. There is no room here for empathy, for student agency, or for faculty discretion.

Our first reaction to expressions of student agency, even when they seem misguided or perhaps frivolous, should not be to shut it down. Ableism, misogyny, racism, elitism, and intellectual sloppiness deserve to be called out. That’s not a threat, that’s our students doing what they’re supposed to as engaged citizens of an academic community. This year, we should challenge ourselves to quit fixating on caricatures and hypotheticals and instead acknowledge the actual landscape of teaching and learning in all its messiness and complexity. When we act out of fear, we do harm. When we assume the worst from our students, that’s what we often end up getting-from them and from ourselves. We can do better than this.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.