Another day, another controversy concerning a college campus. This time, the debate and rage is surrounding a letter sent to the University of Chicago’s incoming freshman class by Dean of Students John Ellison. The majority of the debate has been centered on the following passage: “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.”
Of course, any mention of trigger warnings and safe spaces is inevitably bound to trigger (excuse the pun) heated debate. Many outside of colleges (President Barack Obama included) have complained that college students have become “coddled,” meaning either that they have become emotionally weak or that they have sheltered themselves from opinions that make them uncomfortable to the point of threatening freedom of speech on college campuses. Naturally, college students feel otherwise: They insist that they’re not coddled, but rather trying to make the campus a more inclusive space for students who, throughout the history of universities, have been harshly silenced and discriminated against. Trigger warnings and safe spaces, they argue, are to protect students who might otherwise suffer emotional burdens, which would prevent them from getting their education. That, they argue, is not a threat to academic freedom or freedom of speech.
So, in the midst of this frenzied debate, who’s right and who’s wrong? Are the students on the right side of history, or merely coddled? Is Dean Ellison taking a needed step or merely looking for a nice publicity stunt?
Really, everyone’s a little misguided. Let me explain.
For one, the letter’s mention of and disdain for students’ tendencies to disinvite controversial speakers is absolutely an important message. “Disinvitation season,” as it’s been called by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, absolutely exists, as seen by a quick glimpse at their disinvitation database. Colleges and universities are places in which controversial ideas need to be expressed, discussed, and debated. Disinviting speakers due to their controversial views makes this more difficult, regardless of the speaker in question. Their anti-disinvitation position is a welcome one.
Second, trigger warnings aren’t used nearly as frequently as critics suggest, but however well-intentioned their creators were, they also aren’t an effective tool for helping students with PTSD or severe trauma. Psychologists, not activists, have shown both that sexual assault survivors (the group of people trigger warnings tend to be directed at) overcome their PTSD symptoms within a few months. This is not to belittle the problems in school that they may face, but to say that the psychological difficulties they may face are usually temporary. Furthermore, avoiding PTSD triggers has been shown to make it more difficult for survivors to overcome their trauma.
Furthermore, although critics of current college campuses tend to overstate the frequency at which trigger warnings are used, they have also been used in some pretty ridiculous cases and have been made mandatory at a few universities. Students at Rutgers have demanded mandatory trigger warnings on books such as “The Great Gatsby,” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, or “Things Fall Apart,” by Chinua Achebe. Several schools, such as Drexel University, have actually made trigger warnings mandatory for their professors. So, while trigger warnings may not be quite the bogeyman they’re made out to be, concerns about them are not baseless.
Moral panic over safe spaces, however, does tend to be based more on myth than on fact. Many, including the student government at UChicago, have already pointed out that safe spaces are being actively run by the University’s Office of LGBTQ student life. In an article published on Vox, a first-generation black UChicago graduate describes his need for safe spaces such as the Office of Multicultural Affairs: “…not to ‘hide from ideas and perspectives at odds with my own’ but to heal from relentless hate and ignorance, to hear and be heard.” I highly doubt anyone could make a good argument against safe spaces that are used to help students with the emotional burdens of college, especially those placed on first-generation students and people of color.
There are examples of safe spaces, however, that don’t fit the standard definition that I worry about. Take, for example, the safe space that was suddenly formed at Mizzou during a protest. It was a safe space not for people to deal with emotional burdens, but to be safe from the media and journalists. Of course, this led to the now-infamous scene in which student journalist Tim Tai was harassed out of the protest scene, and where professor Melissa Click asked to “get some muscle.”
Or take the story of how student activists at Oberlin reacted to a guest lecture by Christina Hoff Sommers, a former philosophy professor and academic feminist who’s known for her dissenting views on sexual assault on college campuses and harsh criticisms of third-wave feminism. Describing the experience in a podcast broadcasted by The Rubin Report, she says that “30 people [in the audience] and a dog fled to a safe space….[They] felt that I would give them PTSD….[They needed a safe space because I might] invalidate their experience….That sounds like a good thing to happen. Because you can’t just go by your experience, you have to test it, and see if your interpretation holds up to criticism. They were not interested in criticism.”
Now, I highly doubt that most safe spaces on college campuses resemble the one that Sommers has described. But Sommers’s story raises an important ethical point: that the most emotionally charged subjects are often the most important to confront and debate. While Sommers’s opinions on sexual assault may be viewed as highly offensive and upsetting (she has denied that 1 in 5 women are sexually assaulted on college campuses statistic, among other declarations), the serious nature of the problem makes it all the more important for students to debate the issue and hear opinions that are strikingly dissimilar from their own. This is the foundation of critical thinking: By confronting these views, students are put in positions where they must challenge their own views (as they are confronted with new information and arguments that conflict with their own) and can learn to challenge the opinions of other people. Only through critical thinking can students truly learn and gain the skills necessary to deal with problems as arbitrary as writing a paper or as significant as fighting sexual assault on college campuses.
So, back to the letter in question. The principles behind the letter are highly important and a step in the right direction, even if the section on safe spaces and trigger warnings is a little obnoxious and likely unnecessary. Students on campus have identified several important issues, such as dealing with sexual assault and trying to make campuses, which throughout much of their history have discriminated against many of the students who currently attend them, more inclusive spaces. Their efforts to do so, however, have yielded mixed results, and it’s worth criticizing and debating their ideas further. And, yes, the letter was likely a publicity stunt, but considering how necessary debate over issues on college campuses currently are, that’s not inherently a bad thing.
The great economist Thomas Sowell once said, “There are no solutions, there are tradeoffs.” There are no absolute solutions to the problems currently facing college students; there are things colleges can do to help students, but they all come with both pros and cons. Given this, it’s time that college students and administrators across the country ask some important questions: Do trigger warnings benefit students, or do they encourage students to shy away from critical thinking on touchy subjects? Is disinviting a speaker over controversial views a way of refusing to dignify certain subjects, or does it hamper learning by encouraging students to avoid, rather than confront, controversial views that they may encounter in the real world, outside the college bubble? In the attempts by colleges to empower students with emotional burdens or social disadvantages, have they actually encouraged students to become trapped by their emotions rather than able to conquer them? Are colleges becoming better places, or are colleges valuing good intentions over good ideas?