The Corner

U. of Chicago Chooses to Give Students an Education

All glory and honor to the University of Chicago, which has issued a letter to incoming freshmen reiterating the university’s traditional “commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression,” and de facto barring “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” and the host of devices used to clamp down on that expression. Here are the key paragraphs:

Once here you will discover that one of the University of Chicago’s defining characteristics is our commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression. This is captured in the University’s faculty report on freedom of expression. Members of our community are encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn, without fear of censorship. Civility and mutual respect are vital to all of us, and freedom of expression does not mean the freedom to harass or threaten others. 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.

Fostering the free exchange of ideas reinforces a related University priority — building a campus that welcomes people of all backgrounds. Diversity of opinion and background is a fundamental strength of our community. The members of our community must have the freedom to espouse and explore a wide range of ideas.

This letter — and the University of Chicago’s long history of promoting free expression — should serve as a model for all institutions of higher learning.

But let me add one more thought, prompted by some of the garment-rending from the Left (see, for example, this sputtering, inchoate contribution from Vox). It is assumed on the Left that safe spaces, trigger warnings, and the rest are necessary for there to be functional “community.” The implicit thinking seems to be that a diverse group of individuals can only get along if we magick away any potential sources of tension between them. That being the case, it becomes acceptable to impose from on high any and all devices for doing so. It’s a “legal” solution.

But this gets things backward. There’s no need for the extensive “legal” apparatus if you have a functional community (by which I mean, and the University of Chicago seems to mean, members of an authentic “whole,” not just a bunch of people who share geographical space). However, that arises organically; you can’t impose it. But you can encourage it in the form of shared virtues — “civility and mutual respect” — and shared rituals — “rigorous debate, discussion, and even disagreement.” Genuine bonds are formed by people who struggle with one another, but honestly, in good faith, and toward a mutual end. To prevent intellectual tension from ever arising is to prevent, also, the exercise of the virtues that allow two people to move from superficial opposition into real conversation. And the community that forms from this will not need safe spaces, trigger warnings, etc., to feel “safe.”