I first saw the letter which University of Chicago Dean of Students John Ellison sent to his incoming freshman class on Twitter a day or so before it hit the mainstream press. Scanning the first grainy photocopy, I could sense a kerfuffle in the making.
The controversy, I think, comes less from what Ellison actually said or perhaps meant to say, and more from the rather clipped manner in which he chose to say it. Contrary to what other commentators have suggested, I don’t think he’s being terse or rude. I suspect, rather, that Ellison is simply assuming his audience understands his subject matter as well as he does. The trouble is that it doesn’t.
Ellison writes in terminology steeped in the campus free speech “movement,” unwisely employing its lingo as shorthand for some very complicated concepts and so muddying his message. The trouble is particularly acute given that the letter was directed to new freshmen just entering the world of higher ed and as such relatively unaware of its ongoing controversies.
As someone who shares Ellison’s familiarity, however, I think I know what he means, and I suspect his points are significantly less controversial than they’ve been made out to be.
To my eyes, Ellison isn’t, as has been alleged, pandering to conservatives, or dissing student protesters. Rather, I think he is simply reiterating a standard liberal view of a university’s role as a neutral forum for the meeting and clash of variant ideas. It is a position to which the University of Chicago has been unwavering in its support for quite some time.
That said, I still wholeheartedly endorse what I perceive to be Ellison’s central theses. I would have, however, put it somewhat differently. Here’s my read on what I think he meant, and how I’d have put it instead:
“We do not support so-called trigger warnings ...”
Ellison’s first point is also his most clunkily-worded. What about trigger warnings does Chicago not support? I can read this two different ways: either as “we do not support the use of trigger warnings” or “we do not mandate trigger warnings.”
I think the second interpretation is the correct one, and I would have made that clear. Trigger warnings are a complex issue, and I’ve never met a free-speech advocate who is absolutely against all manifestations of prior content description. I’m not sure anyone, for example, would fault a cinema studies instructor for warning students that “Saving Private Ryan” is quite graphic.
On the other hand, a pillar of the idea of academic freedom to which Ellison alludes is that professors alone should decide how material is best taught, that pedagogy should be a matter of discretion rather than dogma. For that reason, free-speech advocates oppose those proposals which periodically arise to make extensive use of trigger warnings mandatory, just as they would oppose policies forbidding them outright, as Chicago has clarified it would.
“We do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial.”
This is straightforward. “No platforming” speakers with unpopular viewpoints is one of academia’s most shameful and self-defeating traditions. Ellison is right to rebuke it without qualification.
“We do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”
Again, I think Ellison suffers from an assumption that his readers are familiar with the issues and controversies to which he alludes. As critics have noted, political clubs like College Republicans or Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network chapters are arguably “spaces where students can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own,” being groups whose purposes and missions are grounded in the assumption of shared ideals and ideological goals. I doubt that Ellison opposes the existence of such ideologically homogeneous “spaces.” The freedom to form associations is a crucial part of the freedom to express one’s views and engage in the marketplace of ideas, and I suspect Ellison supports it fully.
More problematic are attempts to impose such consensus — and the logical accompanying constraints on what constitutes appropriate behavior — on venues where no such shared values should be or are presumed. Trying to force the norms of a group therapy session upon a seminar room is obviously inappropriate. Furthermore, to refuse to engage with heterogeneity — to “retreat” to a homogenous space when challenged rather than to defend one’s beliefs — undermines the value of coalitions as tools for spreading ideas.
Admittedly, I may be putting words into the dean’s keyboard. But given the broad strokes in which he spoke, it seems that a presumption of good faith and a charitable interpretive eye are warranted. After all, the very diversity of opinion he seeks to foster is contingent upon our ability to accept that our opponents also mean well. It is advice we would all be wise to take.
ALEC WARD is a College senior from Washington, D.C., studying history. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TalkBackWard. “Fair Enough” usually appears every Wednesday.Comments powered by Disqus
Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Pennsylvanian.