Amidst all manner of reactions on the web and social media, we learn that the University of Chicago has sent new students a blunt statement clearly opposing any potential instigations of campus political correctness. The letter, diverging from the usual anodyne 'welcome' , has incited thousands of passionate responses, for and against.
The letter from John Ellison, dean of students, reads in part:
“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,”
The preceding was a not-so-veiled rebuke to any potential protesters from the class of 2020 who might be tempted to howl over the speech to be condoned on campus. Also, who should be allowed to speak, issues that have rocked Yale, Wesleyan, Oberlin and many other colleges and universities in recent years. Some alumni, dismayed by the trend, have withheld donations from their alma maters.
We already saw the case of early education expert Erika Christakis at the center of a Halloween brouhaha at Yale last year. It began when Yale's Intercultural Affairs Committee advised students they ought not present themselves wearing feathered headdresses, turbans or war paint - or modifying skin tones (to appear as a minstrel performer) . The aim was to try to steer students into being more sensitive in their choice of costume or apparel.
In response, Ms. Christakis dispatched her own email wondering whether such oversight and advice was really needed. She wrote:
"Whose business is it to control the forms of costumes of young people to get them to act responsibly?"
"Free speech and ability to tolerate offense are the hallmarks of a free and open society".
Many Yalies became enraged and called for Christakis and her husband to be removed from their positions as heads of undergraduate residence at Yale. Ms. Christakis then resigned from her teaching position. In an early April WSJ piece, she admitted she stepped down not only because of the email kerfuffle but also she felt more broadly that "the campus climate didn't allow open dialogue".
In other words, it more or less treated staff and students as impudent and out of control barbarians who had to be directed toward more judicious actions and couldn't be depended on to act responsibly on their own.
In the end, this is basically what the Univ. of Chicago letter is all about apart from vindicating policies that were already in place there as well as at a number of other universities calling for “the freedom to espouse and explore a wide range of ideas.”
Interestingly, last year, a faculty Committee on Freedom of Expression, appointed by university president, Robert R. Zimmer produced a report stating that: “it is not the proper role of the university to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.”
Unfortunately, the basis of the Chicago letter appears to have been misunderstood by many students as suggesting that slurs and racial, sexual or other putdowns are now to be tolerated. Not so! Only that vehemently expressed ideas are not snuffed out a priori before speakers or writers are heard, seen.
For example, while the opinions of a hard core atheist against Mother Theresa, i.e. as a phony plaster "saint", might rile some students, it is not in their purview to stop the speech. They do have the choice to attend or not.
In like manner, the Chicago letter makes clear Students "are encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn without fear of censorship." In addition, that means the school "does not support so-called 'trigger warnings' " to alert students of upcoming discussions or speakers that they might find offensive.
Why should the university do that? Its role is not to be a nurse maid, or acting therp for student piques, neuroses and sensitivities. In this regard, the grown up makes his or her own choices and knows what stimuli to avoid and doesn't have to be overtly protected from speeches, ideas or controversial writings.
Thus, The University of Chicago letter is saying it won't cancel controversial speakers, and it "does not condone the creation of intellectual 'safe spaces' where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own."
Which is good! I think back to my freshman year at Loyola (1964-65) and how impoverished I'd have been if Loyola's Jesuits had been so twitchy about the French atheist Jean Paul -Sarte that they hadn't let him on campus to debate Christian Existentialist Gabriel Marcel. I also likely never would have learned about "good faith" and "bad faith" and been motivated to get Sartre's book (from the Loyola bookstore): Being and Nothingness.
Political science professor Charles Lipson quoted on the NPR.org site said:
"I think it's an excellent thing," adding that too many campuses are shutting down discussions or speeches that some might find uncomfortable or offensive.
In the 60s, I don't recall any such barricading of ideas occurring even at Catholic Loyola. Indeed, we welcomed the parry and thrust of vehement debate especially in dorm rooms after classes We regarded it as part of our education, an extension if you will. This included themes such as the morality (or not) of the Vietnam War, racial relations, and relations between the sexes.
Despite speakers vocalizing topics that were absolute poppycock, i.e. "mind rape" from one feminist, we came to hear her out - or not. We didn't whine to the administration at South Florida about "no trigger warnings" or "micro aggressions".
My friend, Dr. Pat Bannister - Bajan psychiatrist- would have been appalled at the very idea of enlisting such verbal jui jitsu to prevent speech. Like Prof. Christakis, she feared the mass regression of adults to the state of de facto children, especially with the oncoming emphasis on the visual by way of TV. Like Christakis, she believed true adults needed to be able to make their own decisions and also have the maturity to live with them, come what may.
This is the message, I believe, that is sent by the University of Chicago letter to the incoming frosh. Maybe they will take heed, but they may also use rationalizations to dismiss it, as one Prof at Univ. of Iowa attempted. In this case, one can reckon they may be poorer for their college experience.