'Stop! You're in my safe space:' Undermining education, one trigger warning at a time

The University of Chicago was the focus of media coverage after a letter released by the dean of students warned against claiming "safe spaces" to undermine adversity. (Flickr/luyaozers)

The University of Chicago was the focus of media coverage after a letter released by the dean of students warned against claiming "safe spaces" to undermine adversity. (Flickr/luyaozers)

Last week, the University of Chicago welcomed its incoming freshman class with enthusiasm for the years ahead along with a bit of controversy.  

In his letter to the freshman class, Dean of Students, John Ellison, affirmed the University of Chicago’s “commitment to academic freedom,” which he argued “means that we do not support…'trigger warnings,' [nor] cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, [nor] condone the creation of intellectual 'safe spaces'.” Aside from a rather plain and informal delivery, Ellison was right on the mark.

Over the past decade, ‘safe-spaces’ and ‘trigger warnings’ have made their way onto campus’s nationwide. Most notably, during last year’s University of Missouri heated protests over campus racism, many demonstrators demanded ‘safe-spaces’ as a place of “refuge” from potentially harmful and damaging ideas opposite to their own.

Although the circumstances surrounding the protests are still controversial, those who promote the ‘safe-space’ mentality clearly do not understand the purpose of higher education. As Judith Shulevitz of the New York Times argued, “People ought to go to college to sharpen their wits…[if you] shield them from unfamiliar ideas…they’ll never learn the discipline of seeing the world as other people see it. They’ll be unprepared for the social and intellectual headwinds that will hit them as soon as they step off the campuses whose climates they have so carefully controlled.” 

In running away from the adversity that arises through exposure to new, different and in some ways ‘alarming’ ideas, students will miss out on the intended experience that truly is higher education.

The cornerstone of most, if not all, universities worldwide is the focus on the free flow of ideas and intimate research, discussion and debate that comes with the examination of varying viewpoints. Safe-spaces, by their nature distort, if not completely degrade the value of a liberal campus. To take this liberty away from students, so as to maintain a safe-space is a damning misstep for education.

Liberty, and the liberty of ideas cannot be one-sided. As the term university implies, the liberty of ideas must be universal. To insinuate that college students require a safe space, to protect themselves from ideas that may ‘scare them,’ is insulting to the intellect and maturity of college students.

As elementary as it might seem, the academic experience is like riding a bike, where one cannot stop moving forward out of a fear of falling, or as a result of having fallen. It’s a challenge worth living up to, just as one may be afraid of confronting different ideas, cultures and identities other than their own at university. Such challenges develop valuable debate and persuasion skills, and help others learn to not necessarily agree with, but respect other people’s ideas, values and beliefs.

There are certain instances where exceptions exist. Rape and sexual assault victims take precedence concerning things like a ‘trigger-warning’ for content of a lecture or a book; something that should be taken seriously. However, ideologues need not take such avenues to take advantage of victims and avoid valuable debate. To defame the importance of having a debate under the guise of safe-spaces promoting “hate-speech” and intolerance misses the point. Offering students the opportunity to escape from differing opinions and ideas goes as far as to discriminate those who hold such disagreeable ideas. It’s a disturbing thought.

Overall, Dean Ellison’s letter is a mixed bag. Although the manner in which it was delivered may have been sloppy, its core of upholding the rigors of a true universal college education is to be commended. The very fact there is a free debate about the value of safe-spaces in higher education can be attributed to this letter. It’s a dialogue that has been much needed and something that hopefully, with hindsight will prove beneficial for students, universities and for liberty.


Nick Guarna is a contributor to The Daily Campus opinion section. He can be reached via email at nicholas.guarna@uconn.edu.