Joining the apparent trend of schools and professors alerting students to the prospects that they will be encountering material they may find upsetting, the University of Chicago this week issued a “trigger warning” to its entire incoming class of first-year students. In a letter to the class of 2020 (reproduced at the bottom of this post), Dean John (Jay) Ellison writes:
You will find that we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion, and even disagreement. At times this may challenge you and even cause discomfort.
The term “trigger warnings” was originally introduced to refer to warnings to people with post-traumatic stress disorder about the impending discussion of some widely-recognized causes of trauma. The term is more broadly used now, often overlapping with “content warnings” about course material that a range of people—not just those with trauma-related medical conditions—might find disturbing.
Such warnings have been the subject of some criticism, but the University of Chicago appears to agree with the professor who has perhaps been most outspoken in their defense, philosopher Kate Manne (Cornell). In an essay in The New York Times last year (covered here), Professor Manne wrote:
The point is not to enable—let alone encourage—students to skip these readings or our subsequent class discussion (both of which are mandatory in my courses, absent a formal exemption). Rather, it is to allow those who are sensitive to these subjects to prepare themselves for reading about them, and better manage their reactions.
According to Manne, then, warnings promote the autonomy of the students, allowing them to engage with a broader array of material. Likewise, as part of the justification of the University of Chicago’s warning, Dean Ellison writes that “the members of our community must have the freedom to espouse and explore a wide range of ideas.”
Further, just as Manne does not take the point of these warnings to be to shield students from views they dislike—students “need to learn to engage rationally with ideas, arguments and views they find difficult, upsetting or even repulsive,” she says—Ellison writes that the University of Chicago does not condone the idea that “individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”
Despite the positive publicity Dean Ellison’s letter is getting from some quarters, it is sure to face harsh feedback from those who think that its warning to the students is just further coddling of wimpy millenials.
This is especially so since it is unclear why the students would expect the university to “cancel invited speakers” or create “intellectual ‘safe spaces'”anyway, given just how infrequently such things actually happen.
You can read the dean’s letter in its entirety, here:
(Thanks to David Boonin for a quip that inspired this post.)