On August 24th, the University of Chicago became the first university to explicitly disavow the culture of trigger warnings, safe spaces, and speaker disinvitations that have become prominent throughout America’s elite colleges and universities. This was an incredibly brave thing to do given the inevitable backlash. We here at Athwart congratulate and thank you.
The letter issued by Jay Ellison, Dean of Students, has quickly lit a firestorm of controversy. But the letter was only issued to introduce a monograph written to discuss the nuances of the issues raised in the letter at greater length, and Chicago’s pedagogy regarding them. Chicago has had a special history of free speech, leading for figures like Jonathan Haidt to call the University to take a stand against the campus PC culture. They have now obliged.
This larger discussion has been largely ignored as a series of ugly editorials have attacked the University.
Vox: “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.”
Arrogance and entitlement? Handcuffed by being told of a “commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression?”
Quartz: “The University of Chicago’s trigger warnings ban is a reminder that intellectual freedom on campus is a myth”
Quartz again: “But what’s striking about the University of Chicago dean’s letter is that, while it calls for freedom of expression, it peremptorily, and unilaterally, picks out a single topic—trigger warnings—and declares that this one issue is closed for debate.”
Has this author even read the letter? Trigger warnings weren’t banned, just not supported by the administration. And as to a single topic? It was listed alongside safe spaces and speaker disinvitations.
The reaction is at once amazing and expected. That one could read a letter that should be characterized as mild mannered as "polemic" once again demonstrate just how fragmented discourse has become. Even more ideological is the furor with which trigger warnings and safe spaces are advocated. If there were consensus within psychology that the two ideas were essential for survivors of trauma, the debate might be different. But at this point, the two policies are almost entirely unstudied. Haidt famously wrote that trigger warnings hurt mental health on campus. At the very least the utility of the policies is widely unknown. After all, these policies came not out of psychological literature but from online feminist communities. To advocate implementing safe spaces and trigger warnings at the level of, “I have 60% confidence that these policies could help students with PTSD so we should experiment with them,” would be one thing, but the fact that Ellison is essentially out the Overton Window, for not supporting a policy with little to no empirical support is hard to believe.
Stranger even is the amount of panic in which that some liberals have found themselves. A seemingly equitable, realistic, and bipartisan proposal - that has been floated since campus debates of speech and debate resurfaced - has been to let different universities adopt different levels of PC-type policies proposed, and let applicants chose their environment. Essentially, a market solution, a win-win. Chicago already had a strong free speech policy, so current students should be aware of the campus intellectual climate. As Chicago has been the first university to assert and clarify their policy, it has become the singular option for an elite applicant who would like to be free of trigger warnings, safe spaces, and speaker protests. That seems like an improvement. But liberals (if we can even call them that) see it as an affront. They cannot tolerate the fact that some students may want a different intellectual atmosphere on campus.
Ideally, the questions of how we engage with each other on campuses would be worked out through reason within the community of higher education. The problem, though, is the debate is over how we debate, or meta-debate. When a debate is between people who aren't even employing the same paradigm, the debate is impossible. The sheer degree of disconnect between Ellison's letter and the responses demonstrated that. There cannot be, at least in today's environment, on whether Chicago is right, because no one even agrees on what that would mean.
There are now two disjoint interpretations of what it means to have uninhibited debate. The traditional one contends that free speech means the ability to speak ones mind, unafraid of punishment. The emerging one contends that speech must be limited, to allow speech to flourish. These views cannot be reconciled with the current quality of public discourse.
For now we can only hope that Chicago does not waver in their position, so even without a decision there can be a choice. The criticism will continue, surely, but I am confident that their bet, that some students would like to learn more traditionally, will pay off during application season.