Preserving academic freedom within safe spaces

Olivia Mitchel, Editor-in-Chief of Magazine

   Discomfort is a universal experience: a state of emotional pain that leaves one unsettled, insecure and hurt. Unpleasant as it may be, I believe it’s necessary to face discomfort in order to develop both intellectually and socially. Everyday discomfort often arises unexpectedly, however, in an academic setting, it can sometimes be anticipated.

   This raises ethical questions that have lately provoked a contentious national dialogue, particularly on college campuses. To what extent should students be exposed to discomfort in the classroom? Is it appropriate or beneficial for students to be shielded from contentious material?

   Attempting to answer these questions without first addressing the inherent ambiguity behind key terms has proven an exercise in futility. Some of the most troubling and frequently misunderstood phrases in this debate include trigger warnings and safe spaces.

   Urban’s safe spaces typically manifest as environments in which all viewpoints are welcome and students are at liberty to stumble in their speech without fear of judgement. In contrast, a recent letter welcoming incoming freshmen to the University of Chicago denounces a different type of intellectual safe space, where students can “retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

   The University’s concern is based on a perceived link between safe spaces and censorship. In his speech, Free Speech on Campus, Professor Geoffrey Stone of the University of Chicago Law School explained, in this “era of political correctness… colleges and universities, afraid to offend their students, too often surrender academic freedom to charges of offense.”

   If outside Urban’s walls safe spaces are indeed used to avoid any discomfort that may arise due to differences, it is appropriate for the University of Chicago to do away with such a practice. Professor Stone sites evidence from a recent survey that “65 percent of all college students now say that it is unsafe for them to express unpopular views.” It is clear that many voices are not being heard. Safe spaces, though, should not necessarily be abolished, but rather reimagined to invite freedom of speech and expression.

   Perhaps even more complex is the ethical dispute over trigger warnings. Greg Monfils (History and English Teacher) and Dan Matz (History Teacher) both view trigger warnings as an exercise of good sense on a teacher’s part.

   While certain subject matter such as rape or suicide may be more clearly associated with trauma or discomfort, a teacher cannot possibly be aware of all the various sensitivities students may have developed from their personal experiences. Nonetheless, Matz said, “I think I have a responsibility to at least try to anticipate those things (that may provoke an emotional response).”

   Similarly, when asked about the role of students in notifying teachers of their personal sensitivities, Monfils responded, “If I’m given no warning, it’s still my responsibility to anticipate what might be traumatic for some.”

   At a place like Urban, this system generally works. The teachers are well aware of the diversity of backgrounds, beliefs and values represented in the classroom and are prepared to respond to all types of reactions to material. Additionally, Urban teaches its students to engage in mature and intelligent discussions, even those that involve potentially disturbing subject matter. “At a school with more (dogmatic) teachers,” said Matz, “I’m not sure that kind of dialogue exists.”

   In a different type of academic environment, a trigger warning might be utilized as a means of protecting students. But isn’t there a difference between sheltering a student from trauma and retracting an invitation to a speaker on the basis of objections to his or her views, as has lately been a trend at colleges across the country?

   In his speech at the Howard University Commencement Ceremony on May 7, 2016, President Obama discouraged this practice, saying, “Don’t do that–no matter how ridiculous or offensive you might find the things that come out of their mouths.”

   It may be the case that Urban and other high schools need to err on the side of caution regarding potentially disturbing speech. “We have a greater responsibility to protect students if only because they come in so young,” said Monfils. Even in a college setting, trigger warnings are sometimes very important in making sure all are prepared for difficult conversations and all voices are heard.

   “Sometimes knowing and having an opportunity to talk about and prepare for the content can be sufficient to help a student stay in the room,” said Matz.

   At the same time, however, there needs to be a balance between protecting young students and preparing them for a world where concern about other people’s sensibilities isn’t necessarily the norm.