All schools should follow UChicago’s example on safe spaces

Lower your tuition and prepare kids for the real world with this one weird trick

Last week, the University of Chicago made quite a stir by sending a letter to its incoming freshman class affirming their rights to free speech.

In a saner world, this would not be a particularly shocking move. However, the letter, which was written by dean of students John Ellison, made national news because it openly denounced the recent academic fads of “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces.”

The letter reads, in part: “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.”

This is an impressive step forward on the part of the University of Chicago. It is all the more impressive because, as a private school, the University of Chicago is not bound by the First Amendment, and is not required to give its students any guarantee of free speech.

So why is it so important that the University of Chicago has denounced “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces”?

Safe spaces have their origins in the radical wings of the gay and women’s movements of the 1960s. In modern academic parlance, a “safe space” refers to a space where individuals can expect to feel safe and protected, not just from physical violence and harassment – the basic safety guarantees of any university – but also from forms of expression which may be threatening to their worldviews.

Of course, in practice, this means that anyone who expresses a potentially “unsafe” sentiment will be ejected, sometimes with physical force, from a safe space. We have seen this happen many times over, most notably at the University of Missouri last year, where a professor of journalism was caught on camera calling for “muscle” to be used against a student reporter who was filming a demonstration in a public space on campus which activists had arbitrarily designated a “safe space” for themselves.

In its most basic definition, a “trigger” is anything which causes people with post-traumatic stress disorder to experience a flashback to a traumatic event.

For the small but significant minority of the population which genuinely suffers from PTSD, a trigger can take many forms, ranging from the anniversary of a traumatic event, to a loud noise, to a certain smell, tone of voice, or shirt color, to an actual mention or image of something traumatic.

Of course, there is no possible way to protect a person with PTSD from all possible triggers. Nor should there be. The goal of psychological treatment is to return the patient to a state where they can function independently in society without difficulty. This can only be achieved by helping people with PTSD learn to acclimate to the world as it is. Creating an artificially safe environment, outside of special settings such as a psychiatrists’ office, will only hinder such individuals’ mental health in the long run.

I would go even further, and argue that the creation of such an environment is an insult to the spirit of basic human resilience that has allowed human beings to survive and emerge stronger from even the most horrific experiences. To quote psychology professor Jonathan Haidt, “A carton of eggs is fragile, if you bang it around it breaks. But bone is anti-fragile. If you bang it around it gets stronger, and if you don’t bang it around it gets weaker.”

Haidt goes on to say that young people, like bones, “are anti-fragile. They have to have many, many experiences of failure, fear, and being challenged. Then they have to figure out ways to get themselves through it.” By coddling ourselves from trauma, we are denying ourselves the benefits of the phenomenon psychologists describe as “post-traumatic growth.”

This is bad, not just for us, but for our society. One day, those of us who are college-aged now will be the leaders of the United States. We will have to deal with the most difficult problems of the 21st century, such as climate change, global poverty, foreign aggression, and international trade. There will be no one to help us then, no college administrators to protect us and shield us from trauma. If we lack the mental fortitude to face “triggering” coursework in college, we will almost certainly lack the mental fortitude to effectively deal with these much more difficult problems.

In the modern university, the definition of trigger warnings has been expanded far beyond its legitimate psychological definition. In many colleges, trigger warnings are required for classroom syllabi that may cover difficult material, particularly pertaining to sexual violence or racism – which, although unpleasant, are critical topics of discussion in many academic settings. Trigger warnings can apply to pieces of literature which deal with difficult topics, and even to unpopular political opinions.

Unlike safe spaces, trigger warnings are not an explicit form of censorship. However, they do contribute to an environment of fear on campus, in which individuals will self-censor to avoid controversy.

I have witnessed the effects of this chilling effect first-hand. My university, UCSB, was one of the first to call for trigger warnings in classroom syllabi. During my time as a student there, I spoke to a number of professors who admitted to me (often in confidentiality) that they were afraid to teach certain topics, for fear of offending certain students and getting in trouble with the school.

If there is a place for trigger warnings in the university, then perhaps it should be on our college applications. We all implicitly consented to be part of a certain learning environment when we made the choice to come to college, and this learning environment necessarily involves opening oneself up to intellectual and emotional discomfort.

The argument for free speech on campus should, at this point, be familiar to those who have been following this issue over the past few years. However, for those who are still unfamiliar, allow me to sum it up in brief.

The liberal university, an institution dating back thousands of years to the dawn of Western civilization, is necessarily meant to be a place where all ideas are challenged. The university is based on the theory of the Socratic Method, which involves examining a position critically from every possible angle and addressing every possible doubt.

 

To become fully actualized critical thinkers, we must be exposed to all sorts of perspectives, even those that might make us feel uncomfortable. For instance, a student from a very patriotic military family in a rural town might feel “unsafe” and threatened after coming to college and being exposed to authors who harshly criticize American foreign policy.

Does this mean that the student should be protected from these opinions, to increase his feeling of security in his own views? Of course not. If he is correct, then he has nothing to fear from hearing an alternate perspective, and if he is incorrect, then he can only learn.

 

The vast majority of intellectual backlash against unpopular ideas comes from the left, and even the most cursory examination of recent campus free speech controversies reveals this.

Left-wingers are subject to the same hubris as right-wingers and all other ideologues: the certainty that “I am right!” and that the other side has nothing of value to offer, and are so self-evidently wrong that the expression of their opinions can only serve to sow unnecessary confusion and disarray, and, therefore, that the only reasonable response is to silence the other side.

And so on the modern campus, which leans overwhelmingly left, most of the calls for censorship, for “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings,” for the shutting down of unpopular speakers (such as Ben Shapiro at CSULA, or Milo Yiannopoulos at DePaul University) tend to come from a small but concerted group of students on the far left who are so certain in their beliefs that they feel perfectly justified in silencing the opposition.

Milo Yiannopoulos has been targeted by several university's safe spaces policies

Milo Yiannopoulos has been targeted by several university’s safe spaces policies

Overwhelmingly, college administrators have ceded to these groups’ demands, and have been reluctant to take a stand for free speech.

Why? The short and unflattering answer is that college administrators are bureaucrats, and most bureaucrats are cowards. Their primary interest is the financial betterment of the university. Few of them live by any firm convictions, aside from a vague desire to not be caught on the wrong side of a popular uprising, lest they share the fate of Marie Antoinette and her ilk.

So when administrators see a large group of students protesting for a cause, invoking the language of civil rights and women’s liberation movements of decades past, and making appeals to cherished ideals such as equality and justice, typically the administrators are quick to cede to the protesters’ demands, even if these demands violate the fundamental principles of the university system itself.

They figure, “These protesters say our school has a problem with bigotry. If we don’t listen to them, then people will think that we’re a bigoted school and they won’t support us!”

However, this moral cowardice often backfires on schools. For instance, after the abovementioned incident at the University of Missouri involving the student reporter, Mizzou lost millions of dollars in alumni donations. They also lost funding from the Missouri state legislature, and the incoming freshman class this year was so small that several dormitories had to be shut down.

Ultimately, myopic college administrators who only cared about the short-term financial interests of the university ended up harming these very same financial interests by not standing up for free speech.

As The New York Times revealed, alumni are increasingly reluctant to donate to universities which they see as having not done enough to protect important values such as free expression. At the same time, parents are less likely to send their sons and daughters to such schools, and citizens are less happy to have their tax dollars go to such schools.

We live in an era when college tuition is skyrocketing, and alumni support is more important than ever for universities. Even if most college students and professors lean left, in the outside world a significant portion of the population identifies as moderate or conservative. Universities cannot create an environment hostile to moderate and conservative voices, and still expect to receive broad public support.

What will happen to the University of Chicago now that they have made this statement? I predict that over the next year, the university will receive a surge in public interest and financial support. Philanthropists who are fed up with safe spaces and trigger warnings will vote with their pocketbooks by supporting the first major university to explicitly denounce them, and many parents will be happy to send their children to a university with such a strong assurance of academic freedom.

University administrators will soon start to realize that standing up for free speech isn’t just the morally correct decision: it’s also in their best financial interest!

So, to those of you who are still in college, and who care about your campus and want to see it flourish, I encourage you all to join the fight for free expression at your university. Make it clear to your administration that you care about free speech and that you are paying them to be exposed to dissenting points of view. Ask that your university adopt the University of Chicago’s principles on free speech. If you encounter students who are calling for “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings,” or who are demanding that unpopular speakers be cancelled, cite Socrates and John Stuart Mill to explain why these policies are detrimental to academic freedom and the greater purpose of the university.

Use the free information provided by organizations such as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education to challenge restrictive speech codes on your campus. Perhaps you can even do what we did at UCSB, and work with student government to pass a resolution on this issue.

One day, perhaps, statements like that of the University of Chicago will be seen as the rule, not the exception. If the moral argument for free expression fails to win hearts and minds, then an open academic environment will only come about when universities realize that preserving free expression is in their best financial interest.

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