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
Reactions were predictable. Critics of campus culture (usually, but not always, on the right) loved it; supporters of trigger warnings and safe spaces (usually, but not always, on the left) didn't.
I think it could have been better written. Here's how I would have framed the same paragraph.
Our commitment to academic freedom will govern our response to community concerns about course content and campus expression in general. The community should not expect us to require professors to give "trigger warnings," or to discipline them if they decline to do so. The community should not expect us to prohibit or "disinvite" speakers who offer controversial or offensive ideas. Members of the community should exercise their freedom of association to form groups with similar interests, goals, and values, but should not expect to transform classes or public spaces into "safe spaces" where expression they oppose is prohibited.
I like my version better for several reasons.
First, it's clearer that the University isn't telling professors how to teach their classes. It's unserious to say that you stand for academic freedom but then dictate to professors exactly how they can talk about their class content. I don't read the letter to say they are prohibiting professors from choosing to offer trigger warnings, but I think they could have been clearer. I personally find trigger warnings infantilizing in most academic circumstances, but I'm not the one teaching the class.
Second, I think my version offers a more honest and philosophically coherent approach to "safe spaces." As I have argued before, "safe spaces" are completely consistent with freedom of association when they represent a group of people coming together voluntarily to determine how they want to interact. They're a problem when people decide they have the right to intellectual manifest destiny — when they have a right to use safe spaces as a sword rather than a shield by telling others what they can say in public spaces like classes, quads, and dorms. "This club is a space for [group x]" does not threaten academic freedom or freedom of expression. "This campus/dorm/class/quad is a safe space and so this speaker/topic/speech should not be allowed" definitely is.
This is going to get me called (among other things) a pedant. Guilty, with an explanation. Pedantry on basic civic virtues is a good thing. Free speech legalism is a good thing. Rhetoric that blurs the nature of rights and encourages misunderstandings is bad — particularly when it comes from a university. If the University of Chicago believes — as many of us do — that the values of academic freedom and free speech are under assault, then it shouldn't encourage misunderstandings of those concepts just for the pleasure of rhetorically spiking the ball. If your proposition is that college kids should act like grown-ups, you can talk to them with a bit more complexity and accuracy.
Conservatives railing against "safe spaces" without nuance should remember that freedom of association — which conservatives are supposed to be fighting for — is about something very like safe spaces. You think college kids shouldn't be able to form their own "safe spaces" where they hear what they want? Fine. But remind me — why should campus Christian groups be able to control who can be officers based on sharing the groups' values? On the other hand, liberals insisting that this is all a talk-radio fabrication should take another look. The rhetoric of safe spaces is being used, widely and explicitly, as a justification for excluding contrary expression. These people — whether a small minority or not — believe that universities have an obligation to exclude views that they, subjectively, deem harmful. If you support that, you're not in favor of academic freedom or free speech.
In short, University of Chicago's letter was a little triumphalist, a little misleading, and a little too vague.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
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