Some critics of the letter, who focused on a passage declaring, “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,” imagined a different sort of incoming college student as the recipient—one victimized in some way that causes them to want “safe spaces” and sensitivity.
“Entering students should expect to have their worldviews shifted and their capacity for discourse expanded,” a returning student commented. “These students, however, should not expect to have their life experiences belittled by the very person who is tasked with advocating on their behalf.” In her telling, the letter was tantamount to “telling trauma survivors that the university does not care about them.”
That analysis begs the question of whether trigger warnings help or hurt the traumatized, or have no effect, a matter that is hotly contested. But with elite high schools increasingly acculturating students to social-justice jargon as a form of college prep, it is likely that at least some incoming freshmen shared that reading of the letter.
For that reason and more, it has become the most debated item in higher education as faculty, administrators, and students return to campus for the fall semester.
Inside Higher Ed offered a summary. “To those who regularly campaign against what they see as political correctness, and to plenty of others, the letter was the message they have been waiting for—and that they think students need,” Scott Jaschik wrote. “But to many others, the letter distorted programs on which many students rely, ignored the hostility many students feel on campus, and belittled the sincerity of faculty members who work to make higher education more inclusive.”
My reaction doesn’t fit neatly into either camp. I cheer the impulse to prime students for freewheeling discourse. There is overwhelming evidence that free inquiry is threatened from the right and left, despite the fact that, as Jesse Singal put it, “There’s a strong case to be made that most students favor a liberal conception of campus free-speech rights; they’re just quieter about their preferences than the activists who believe that open debate of controversial subjects is harmful.”
There are, however, a lot of different ways to champion that ethos. Deciding whether the University of Chicago letter is an effective model for other institutions to emulate or a misstep to be avoided requires closer engagement with its critics.
What “Trigger Warnings” and “Safe Spaces” Mean
One common critique, represented here by Slate’s L.V. Anderson, is that the University of Chicago does not understand the concepts that its missive condemned.