1. Opinion

Maxwell: Don't protect college students from distressing ideas

Published Sep. 2, 2016

If you are parents who sent your son or daughter to the University of Chicago, you are aware that your child will not find intellectually safe spaces on the Hyde Park campus.

Dean of students John Ellison mailed a letter to all incoming freshmen, the class of 2020, informing them that trigger warnings will not appear on a syllabus. A trigger warning is a statement atop a syllabus alerting students of potentially distressing material.

Richard J. McNally, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, explained that "trigger warnings are designed to help survivors avoid reminders of their trauma, thereby preventing emotional discomfort."

While stating that respect and civility are hallmarks of Chicago's esprit de corps, Ellison is unequivocal: "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. … 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."

As a former college professor, a University of Chicago alum and currently an adjunct instructor, I applaud Ellison's declaration. Trigger warnings have no place in academia, places of higher learning where higher-order reasoning should prevail. There should be no silos or echo chambers or sacred cows.

Barring harassment, voicing ideas should be unfettered.

I fondly recall my years as a student at Chicago from 1972 to 1974. Although I was in graduate school, I and fellow graduate students rubbed shoulders with undergraduates in the college. We always were impressed with the intellectual curiosity of these young people. It was second nature for all us to read everything our professors required and suggested. And, of course, we read on our own, seeking deeper insights.

We truly were creatures of intellectual serendipity. In our classrooms and libraries, on the Main Quad and in Hyde Park taverns and eateries, we freely engaged. Despite our individual histories and discomforts, we lived and examined the zeitgeist of the 1970s — the philosophical ideas, political movements, social currents, racial upheavals, books, poems, plays, films.

I will never forget my introduction to the work of Saul Alinsky, considered to be the founder of modern community organizing. I read his books Reveille for Radicals and Rules for Radicals with relish. A new world opened for me, a child of migrant farmworkers from Fort Lauderdale. I met neo-Nazis who would march in Skokie, where many Jews lived, some of them Holocaust survivors. I thought these neo-Nazis were goons, but I had to meet them and listen to them to know.

I was in the audiences when Gunter Grass, Amiri Baraka, John Barth, Edward Albee, Saul Bellow, Gwendolyn Brooks and many other luminaries spoke on campus. At Court Theatre, fellow students and I were transported into new worlds of absurdity, protest, anarchy, dystopia and sublimity.

Because we were not protected from the incendiary, the crude, the stupid or the anti-American, we learned to put matters in their proper places. In short, we were shoved into higher reasoning.

When I graduated from Chicago and became a professor, I never thought of warning students that they would face stressful or hurtful ideas in my classes. I led them into the diverse and messy world of competing ideas.

Over time, I was admonished by many black colleagues. They argued that as a black man in America who shares a history of traumatic events with other blacks, I should not assign certain texts, such as Huckleberry Finn, and should never invite certain speakers to my classes. I disagreed then, and I disagree now.

President Barack Obama, who taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago, addressed trigger warnings in a commencement speech this year at traditionally black Howard University in the nation's capital.

"Don't try to shut folks out, don't try to shut them down, no matter how much you might disagree with them," Obama said. "There's been a trend around the country of trying to get colleges to disinvite speakers with a different point of view, or disrupt a politician's rally. Don't do that — no matter how ridiculous or offensive you might find the things that come out of their mouths."

This is sage advice from a black man who has endured perpetual racial contempt, who cannot find an intellectually safe space in America even if he wanted to.