Education shouldn’t be about “trigger warnings” or “safe spaces”

The University of Chicago has always been usefully out of step with its peers in higher education — it dropped out of the Big Ten Conference and takes perverse pride in its reputation as the place where fun goes to die. It was out of step again last year when Jay Ellison, the dean of students, sent a letter to incoming freshmen to let them know where the college stood in respect to the campus culture wars. “Our commitment to academic freedom,” he wrote, “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.”

I think of education- particularly of the higher variety- to be about expanding one’s frame of reference. It’s about helping a person learn more about themselves and the world around them. With any luck, one of the things they’ll learn is that not everyone thinks, acts, believes, lives, and/or loves as they do. Our world is made up of an impressively diverse collection of races, creeds, colors, sexualities, ideologies, and religious faiths. Institutions of higher education have traditionally been about exposing students to ideas, people, and things not like themselves in the hope they’ll learn tolerance, compassion, and understanding. That was then….

Somewhere along the way, that train jumped the tracks, leaving us with an educational system in which too many want to be walled off and protected from ideas and voices they find “threatening.” No longer is it so much about tolerance, compassion, and understanding…or even learning. These days, it seems more about avoiding the discomfort of being confronted by ideas and people one disagrees with and/or finds offensive.

Welcome to the Snowflake Generation.

The letter attracted national attention, with cheering from the right and caviling on the left. But its intellectual foundation had been laid earlier, with a 2015 report from a faculty committee, convened by [Chicago University President Robert] Zimmer, on free expression. Central to the committee’s findings: the aim of education is to make people think, not spare them from discomfort.

“Concerns about civility and mutual respect,” the committee wrote, “can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.”

That the University of Chicago even felt it necessary to issue such a report is extraordinary. It demonstrates just how much the college experience has changed over the past generation or so.

Censorship is never an appropriate response to ideas. Even as odious and offensive as certain ideas may be to some, shutting down controversial speech is censorship, a violation of a citizen’s 1st Amendment rights. That’s not to say that everyone gets to say their piece without pushback. In the case of people like Richard Spencer, his college tour is about spreading the gospel of racism and racial hatred…and those who disagree are free to respond. In fact, they should respond, if for no other reason than to make it clear racism and identity politics aren’t American values.

Those are fighting words at a time when professors live in fear of accidentally offending their own students and a governor needs to declare a countywide state of emergency so that white supremacist Richard Spencer can speak at the University of Florida. They are also necessary words. That isn’t because universities need to be the First Amendment’s most loyal guardians — in the case of private universities, the First Amendment generally doesn’t apply. They set their own rules.

Instead, it’s because free speech is what makes educational excellence possible. “It is the function of speech to free men from the bondage of irrational fears,” Louis Brandeis wrote 90 years ago in his famous concurrence in Whitney v. California.

It is also the function of free speech to allow people to say foolish things so that, through a process of questioning, challenge and revision, they may in time come to say smarter things.

It feels as if I’ve written this a thousand times, but frequency renders it no less true: Free speech can be and very often is objectionable, distasteful, and/or offensive speech. Any institution of higher education worthy of the appellation would go out of its way to promote free speech. Restricting speech out of concern for “trigger warnings” and providing “safe spaces” to those who take offense is censorship and it fails to promote understanding.

In the real world, there are no trigger warnings and no safe spaces. You figure out how to deal with things or ideas you may find objectionable and/or offensive…or you crawl back into bed and pull the covers over your head.

If you can’t speak freely, you’ll quickly lose the ability to think clearly. Your ideas will be built on a pile of assumptions you’ve never examined for yourself and may thus be unable to defend from radical challenges. You will be unable to test an original thought for fear that it might be labeled an offensive one. You will succumb to a form of Orwellian double-think without even having the excuse of living in physical terror of doing otherwise.

Perhaps this is why America finds itself at a crossroads. One road leads to clear, rational thinking of the sort which will allow Americans to dispassionately evaluate questions and find answers. The other road leads to groupthink and will result in the gradual and inevitable loss of the ability to think clearly. Americans will react when told to do so and think the thoughts they’re told to think and become a brain-dead mass of rage-addicted sheep.

Is that really the America we want to inhabit? Do we want to be a place ruled by rage and reaction? Are to be OK with a country in which ideas are regulated and speech is tightly controlled? Is America going to be allowed to become a place where one’s feelings are valued over intellect and empiricism? Are we to acquiesce to a political system in which demagogues manipulate the anger, fear, and prejudice of America’s Lowest Common Denominator © in order to seize, consolidate, and maintain power?

It would appear we’re already there.

Nice work, America.

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