When the University of Chicago sent out its welcome package to incoming freshmen this year, it reignited a raging war. John Ellison, dean of students wrote, “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 letter came as a response to more liberal colleges creating safe spaces—environments where people can fully express themselves without feeling uncomfortable, unwelcome, or unsafe.
Trigger warnings, which have become more popular among academic literature in the past couple of years, are statements at the beginning of a piece of writing or a piece of art highlighting that there might be upsetting subject material to follow. Topics could include, death, rape, racial discrimination, etc.
Although many have criticized the University of Chicago’s public statement as an appeal to wealthy conservative donors, I couldn’t help but agree with the letter’s sentiment.
As a parent, I hope that my children grow up in a world that’s diverse. I want them to be exposed to people, opinions, and things that are vastly different from them and from how they grew up. I want them to be in environments that make them uncomfortable and that challenge their beliefs. Isn’t that what college is about?
When I was in college at the University of Pennsylvania, I enrolled in a Farsi language course. Having grown up in a half Sephardic/half Ashkenazi home, I was drawn to my mother’s rich Persian history and culture. It was during this semester that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke at Columbia University. My professor saw this as a learning opportunity and live-streamed the speech in Farsi to see how much of it we could translate ourselves. I watched as the rest of the class nodded in agreement as Ahmadinejad spewed hateful and discriminatory rhetoric. At the end of the speech I was the only student left in my seat. The rest of the class gave him a standing ovation.
I was shocked. I had previously attended a Modern Orthodox yeshiva day school. And now, as the only Jewish student among Muslims, I was out of my comfort zone. I was scared, confused, and upset. But that experience helped solidify my views. I learned how to express myself respectfully but without avoiding conflict. I even asked a friend I made in class why she applauded at the end of the speech. My question led to a conversation over chai (Persian tea), which led to a deeper understanding. I grew as a result of this experience and in retrospect, I’m glad I found myself in an unsafe space.
Safe spaces and trigger warnings coddle young adults by treating them like children who need to be protected. A baby needs to feel safe at all times—swaddled, held, and attended to constantly. But a 20-something needs to be brought into reality. The real world is not a safe space. In the real world, there are no trigger warnings before a tragedy, a crisis, or a trauma occurs. Adults need to grapple with hardships, overcome obstacles, and deal with tension.
By artificially designing cocoons we are truly doing young people a disservice. If they do not learn how to handle difference, controversy, and discomfort in college, how will they be equipped to survive as independent, functioning adults with crass bosses, difficult co-workers, and environments where they might find themselves unwelcome?
It is a beautiful fantasy to build places where everyone feels good and safe, but the truth is that when reality strikes it will be a harsher blow in your 30s than it would have been on a college campus.