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University of Chicago strikes back at political correctness

Caricature of SteveThe University of Chicago welcome letter to new students is the latest in a series of contentious comments regarding political correctness on American campuses.

This is a good letter.  I was struck by two references:  First, the one about “trigger warnings” and, second, “safe spaces.”

Trigger warnings

Trigger warnings are not new. We used them at Iowa State University before I retired 12 years ago. I included them on my course syllabi and they made sense. I think they still do if written correctly and mentioned at the start of class every term. But they require explanation and context.

Here is what I would declare today.

“This is to let everyone in class know that the discussion today will include ideas, arguments—yes, even language—that proponents and contestants have employed in trying to persuade others of their positions. Some of this may be uncomfortable.

“But the purpose of the today’s class is to help us better understand the framework of the issue, why advocates of both sides believe as they do, and that arguments used by the various parties often are paradoxes. Seemingly polar opposites but both true. Sometimes we have to tolerate unpleasant opinions for better understanding. That is the goal of intellectual exploration and our university education. Let’s begin.”

I don’t think trigger warnings are an excuse to let students avoid exposure to different ideas. Unfortunately, I concede that probably was the original intention of university and departmental administrators who wanted those statements on class outlines.  Instead today they should alert students to a learning opportunity.

Safe spaces

Second, I understand the possible confusion between “intellectual ‘safe spaces’” and safe spaces for students who want to discuss issues related to sexual orientation. That section could have been worded differently to make the distinction between “intellectual retreats” and “gender harbors.”

Intellectual retreats are shelters from unwelcome views.  A refuge from ideas that may have merit but conflict with your own.  Such retreats deny us the opportunity for growth and analysis.

Gender harbors (safe spaces) as used here refers to areas where students, staff and faculty concerned about sexual orientation can meet and talk about those issues in a friendly, non-judgmental environment.

The letter should have read, “…the university rejects the former but embraces the latter.”

As we arrive at today’s campuses, we will meet individuals who differ along a wide continuum of issues. But that is exactly what should happen at college as the University of Chicago welcome letter notes.

Exposure to different people and perspectives is precisely the definition of a broad education—or should be.


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