A letter from the University of Chicago’s dean of students to the incoming students of the class of 2020 has been making the rounds on social media the past few days. Its purpose, I guess, was to let those students know they were in for a real education. More of a full-on broadside than a welcome letter, the dean let the incoming students know that the university is totally committed to academic freedom and "freedom of expression" from its faculty and students.
What this means in practice, the letter continues, is that "we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own." And, if you’ve watched students at other campuses, the dean warns, don’t get any crazy ideas about protesting invited speakers: "we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial." And, for the love of Milton Friedman, "Our commitment to academic freedom means we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings.’" WE ARE A MIGHTY RACE OF INTELLECTUAL WARRIORS.
I’ve been teaching on the college level for 18 years, and I also direct my university’s Teaching and Learning Center, so I’ve been following the debate over "trigger warnings," "safe spaces," and the purported scourge of "political correctness" for quite a while. Despite the apocalyptic tone that often accompanies screeds against supposedly coddled students and their trigger-free safe spaces, the issues involved strike me as far more complicated than the overheated rhetoric suggests.
As with any conversation about teaching and learning, context and nuance matter greatly — but they’re not present in most of the critics’ attempted takedowns of trigger warnings (better called "content advisories," in my estimation) or safe spaces.
Students deserve much more credit than they get in the UChicago letter
I’m dismayed by how diatribes like the Chicago letter approach students in adversarial terms, implying that they don’t know how to make choices or approach material when it comes to their learning. Our students deserve more credit than they get in these types of polemics; as I’ve argued elsewhere, they are far from the coddled, entitled softies that they’re often painted as. Rather than obsessing about a cartoonish version of what some hypothetical Oberlin graduate might say, we ought to engage with our students as the real and complex people that they actually are.
As you might imagine, though, there’s been a wave of support from the usual quarters for the Chicago letter and its sentiments; I assume that’s what such a blatant attempt at elitist posturing was aiming for in the first place. On the surface, the points seem hard to argue with.
Academic freedom is the sine qua non of higher education. Students ought to be challenged, even made uncomfortable, in order to learn in deep and meaningful ways. And, of course, collegiate education is where students must encounter perspectives different from their own. No one who genuinely believes in higher education is going to dispute any of that. And that’s what this dean and the anti-trigger-warnings, no-safe-spaces crowd are counting on — that the surface veneer of reasonableness in these admonitions to the class of 2020 will obscure the rotten pedagogy and logical fallacies that infest this entire screed.
The screed is a manifesto looking for an audience
Even the timing of this missive raises questions. Why go full blast against this purported scourge of wimpy, touchy-feely educational malpractice right up front? Is there a safe-spaces petition percolating in the ranks of the first-years? Are the dean and the university worried that people will lose respect for the almighty maroon if they didn’t stake out the tough-guy intellectual turf from the beginning? Did they sit around and ask themselves what Milton Friedman would have done?
From the outside, it looks like a lot of smoke without much heat. I suspect 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.
And as a statement of principle, the letter — as does much of the general argument against trigger warnings and safe spaces — relies on caricature and bogeymen rather than reason and nuance. The document comes from a place, I imagine, where the true defenders of Academic Rigor™ man the parapets against the encroaching legions of namby-pamby liberals who want to coddle students instead of teach them.
Ohhh, you want a safe space so the mean nasty Truths of the world won’t hurt your wittle feewings. You want to be "warned" before we discuss "sensitive" subjects. WELL HEY JUNIOR, "WAR AND PEACE" HAS WAR IN IT. If you don’t like it, go sit on the quad and sing "Kumbayah" with the other flower children.
That’s the specter that arguments like this conjure up: The greatest threat to genuine academic freedom comes from within. Coddled students who are used to getting trophies for everything don’t want to engage with stuff they don’t like, so they wrap themselves in entitlement and demand trigger warnings to protect their feelz. Or they want safe spaces to hide from the big, bad world. Or they want the university to cancel a lecture because the speaker is from the wrong demographic. And if universities don’t make a stand against this foolishness, Western Civilization itself will collapse.
That’s a comforting narrative to the academic elite who feel like they’re faced with an existential crisis. Rather than seeing themselves as clinging to the last vestiges of the 1950s, they get to paint themselves as staunch advocates of all that is good and worthy. And there’s an audience for this fiction — people still read Allan Bloom. But as critiques of inequality have shown time and again, when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the backlash against so-called "political correctness" in higher education has intensified in direct variation with the diversification of the academy, areas of scholarship, and — most significantly — the student population.
What’s really behind the hand-wringing: the gatekeepers want to remain in place
Underlying much of the hand-wringing about the state of the academy is a simple desire to have the gatekeepers remain in place. The perception of the threat is entirely out of alignment with the reality on the ground. For every ginned-up hypothetical scenario of spoiled brats having a sit-in to protest too many white guys in the lit course, there are very real cases where trigger warnings or safe spaces aren’t absurdities, but pedagogical imperatives.
If I’m teaching historical material that describes war crimes like mass rape, shouldn’t I disclose to my students what awaits them in these texts? If I have a student suffering from trauma due to a prior sexual assault, isn’t a timely caution the empathetic and humane thing for me to do? And what does it cost? A student may choose an alternate text I provide, but this material isn’t savagely ripped out of my course to satiate the PC police.
To move from the hypothetical to the real, the Virginia Tech students who protested their university’s invitation to Charles Murray to deliver a lecture weren’t some sort of intellectual gestapo, they were members of a community calling out other members’ violation of the community’s ethos.
Murray is a racist charlatan who’s made a career out of pseudoscientific social Darwinist assertions that certain "races" are inherently inferior to others. To bring him to campus is to tell segments of your student community that, according to the ideas the university is endorsing by inviting Murray, they don’t belong there. This isn’t a violation of academic freedom. It’s an upholding of scientific standards and the norms of educated discourse — you know, the type of stuff that colleges and universities are supposed to stand for, right?
These two examples — one centered in an individual classroom and the other involving institutional decisions — speak to the diversity and complexity of the issues involved. It’s easy to inveigh against silly scenarios. It’s much harder to address real things that really happen. Do I tell my student that, even though she was the victim of a brutal assault in her past, she must read testimony of gang-rape survivors in my course in order to uphold the sacred values of free intellectual inquiry?
Sure, Charles Murray has a right to his views. But is it okay for us to use student fees paid in part by African-American students to bring him to campus, fête him, and give him a rostrum to tell those students they’re doomed by genetics to be inferior to whites? Well, he makes a strong argument and isn’t bound by conventional "niceties." Yes, that’s true. But that’s also the reason people claim to like Donald Trump, and I don’t see universities lining up to bring him in as a guest lecturer.
Ignoring the complexity of real-life situations is a common accusation hurled at academics and the academy in general. Why on earth would we be so eager, in this case, to prove those accusations true? To prevent imaginary sit-down strikes against Victorian literature, we’re willing to force students into a predetermined path where to deviate is to compromise academic integrity? Are we so scared of losing the intellectual heft of our curricula that we want to muzzle our students and deprive them of agency?
Or are we just afraid of our students challenging us and holding us accountable to the very values we profess?
Our first reaction to expressions of student agency should not be to shut them down
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.
Displaying empathy for the different experiences our students bring to the classroom is not a threat to our academic freedom. Allowing for a diversity of perspectives to flourish, even when that diversity might challenge the very structure of our course and its material, is not a threat, but an opportunity. Our first reaction to expressions of student agency, even when they seem misguided or perhaps frivolous, should not be to shut it down. If we really value academic freedom, then we need to model that with and for our students.
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.
Kevin Gannon, PhD, is professor of history and director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa. In addition to his own blog at thetattooedprof.com, he writes on pedagogy and academia at the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Vitae and the Teaching US History blog. Find him on Twitter @TheTattooedProf.
This article was adapted from a post that originally ran on The Tattooed Professor.