2016-08-25 – My alma mater (the University of Chicago) has declared to incoming students that it does not support trigger warnings or safe spaces. I mostly agree with this.
Mostly, but not entirely.
The part I agree with has to do with the idea that one of the missions of a university is to be an open forum to ideas that are comfortable as well as those that are not. Uncomfortable ideas challenge comfortable ideas.
Here’s where I disagree. The idea that a university is an impartial forum is itself a comfortable idea. But there are at least two areas where the impartial forum concept breaks down.
The clearest problem with this is that a university is more than just a forum. It is also a community. And like many communities, it contains homes and businesses and religious institutions and hospitals and sports venues and many other things. Professors control access to their homes. They can leave challenging ideas at the “office.” But students have a limited ability to do the same in a dorm. At the very least, students should be able to have their rooms as a safe space. Some sort of refuge.
I’m not talking about allowing safe spaces that will eat up the forum space of the university. But other safe spaces are important as well. A library cubicle. A practice room. A chaplain’s office. A psychologist’s. Places of solitude or refuge. A group of like-minded friends.
But no safe classes. No safe clubs. . . . Maybe.
The other problem with the impartial forum concept is that some people are out to destroy the impartial forum. Is it free speech to deny others free speech? Do we shut down the uncomfortable speakers? Or do we just tell them they are full of shit?
It is a noble thing to leave comfortable ideas open to challenge. That is the way knowledge is advanced. That is the way truth is found. But not every uncomfortable idea is true. Most are not. We aspire to an open forum because of the few that are. If you don’t pan for gold, you won’t find gold.
But some of the uncomfortable-idea speakers are not looking for gold. They are just mean. Look at the trolls on the Internet. They have their counterparts in the university. Trolls don’t open free discussion. They shut it down.
The problem, of course, is separating the trolls from the gold seekers.
My alma mater’s solution is to say: we’re not dealing with this. That’s a very comfortable solution.
Part of the problem is claiming an emotional mandate over a capacity of dealing with logical discourse and conflicting ideals. This has negative potential to hijack learning completely.
There’s learning in the classroom, which presumably is guided by a professor’s syllabus. Then there’s learning outside the classroom. Both were important to me when I was at the UofC.