BY SAMAN SALAHUDDIN
The University of Chicago is a place characterized by its hyper-intellectual student body and overabundance of self deprecating statements such as “UChicago- where the squirrels are cuter than the girls and more aggressive than the guys.” UChicago is also an institution that, since the 1890’s, has prided itself on it’s exceptionally intellectual and inclusive community of students and professors.
This summer, the University sent out a letter, welcoming their incoming class of 2020. The letter, written by the Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jay Ellison, briefed students that their education for the next four years would be one of intense academic inquiry and freedom of expression in a campus void of any “intellectual safe spaces” and “trigger warnings.” Essentially, the letter told students to brace themselves, for the classrooms they are going to spend their next four years in are not a place to hide when they feel challenged or hurt.
A “trigger warning” is essentially a statement alerting the reader or viewer that the content contains images or descriptions that might be disconcerting to some. On the other hand, a “safe space” is defined as a place with certain rules and expected manners on campus where students can come together in a welcoming environment.
This letter has recently sparked a debate across the academic community regarding political correctness and free speech.
In a recent article The Chicago Tribune dubbed UChicago as “The University of Common Sense,” and I for one, agree. University is a place to let your ideas and beliefs be challenged and put to the test. It is also a stepping stone to prepare students for the world outside the ivy covered walls. Thus it is the job of the University from the start to instill in their students the admittedly harsh idea that the real world doesn’t care whether you or your ideas feel safe or protected. It is not the job of a professor to create a classroom environment in which each student feels secure, comfortable and coddled. Infact it’s quite the opposite-a truly great professor works to create an environment in which students feel challenged and often times uncomfortable- since in many circumstances feeling uncomfortable is a marker for learning and growth. Being exposed to a multitude of ideas even if they may be disconcerting or hurtful to some, is the cornerstone of higher education and one that we must protect. If you expect to walk through university with your ideas and beliefs unchallenged, then university-or at least UChicago and other institutions like it- is not for you. As the President of Vassar College put it in her fall convocation letter “Free speech is essential to challenging accepted norms, making progress and advancing new ideas… [and] We need to protect the rights of all to freely participate in discussions on campus, pushing the boundaries of what we know and understand.”
There has been a substantial backlash to the UChicago letter. In an article on Vox, Professor Kevin Gannon, argues that “ this letter is not intended as an orientation statement, but rather a public rebuke to what its authors see as a threat to their vision of what higher education ought to be; It’s not a welcome letter, it’s a manifesto looking for an audience.”
Whatever the author’s intentions may have been, the contents of the letter have been successful in promoting a healthy discussion regarding free speech on high school campuses-a topic that has been quite contentious in the past year with controversy erupting in Claremont McKenna College,Yale University and most notably the University of Missouri.
I think that trigger warnings and safe spaces indirectly promote this culture of pretending that opposing viewpoints don’t exist. But they do-there are a vast majority of individuals to be found who may disagree with your ideas. The only way to bridge the gap is through unrestricted and unstifled discussion.
A link to the wording of the letter provided by University of Chicago is provided below: