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UChicago urges open discussion

Letter sent to incoming freshman causes trigger warning controversy

Emma Ismail

Max Cohn and Emma Ismail

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The University of Chicago (UChicago) recently sent a letter to the incoming freshman class that reads “our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called “trigger warnings.” UChicago also made it clear within the letter that they “do not condone the creation of intellectual “safe spaces.”

A trigger warning is a statement at the beginning of controversial material, whether it be a book, a video, a lecture or something else, that notifies the audience that the subject of the material is potentially distressing. With material that can be plausibly offensive towards the viewer, some college campuses have encouraged “safe spaces” where those who are triggered can have an environment free of discomfort.

UChicago’s letter described how the school wants to encourage debate and discussion and prevent anyone from retreating from dissenting opinions. Though it stays true to the ideals of the university, the letter led to both positive and negative reactions from students around the country.

“When I first read the trigger warning letter, I didn’t think anything of it,” UChicago freshman and Stevenson alum Ally Silverman ’16 said. “UChicago has sent things about free expression before, so it didn’t seem unusual.”

College counselor Sara English had the same initial lack of surprise with the letter, not shocked at all by the content and message UChicago sent out. Though the letter was direct in its phrasing, English does not believe it’s frankness will deter anyone from applying.

“I think this freedom is fundamentally what UChicago is,” English said. “The school looks for applicants that want to have open and respectful discussions with others who have vastly different viewpoints.”

Silverman had been looking into the college for several years before applying, and she had always been aware of UChicago’s stance on freedom of expression. She specifically liked UChicago for the hope that she would be exposed to many different ideas.

“Trigger warnings are another word for censorship,” Silverman said. “They would’ve affected my college experience in a negative way.”

Though Silverman doesn’t know why UChicago specifically pushed for free speech on campus this year, she suspects that is has something to do with reversing the push for more political correctness. English also equates the need for trigger warnings to a desire to be politically correct.

“It’s the conversation our country is having right now: Are we too politically correct, or not enough?” English said.

Given that UChicago has moved towards the exclusion of trigger warnings, Stevenson has shifted in a direction different to that of UChicago’s. Trigger warnings have been notorious for alerting students before they learn about content that may come off as vulgar. This has led to a very conservative curriculum, english teacher William Fritz said.

Although the curriculum eliminated some of his favorite novels like The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Fritz does see the need for trigger warnings in a high school setting.

“The thing we try not to do in a classroom is to isolate the students, so aren’t we isolating students when we bring up issues that they are not prepared to deal with?” Fritz said.

“I do believe in trigger warnings for high school, but I think by the time you’re in college, you have to handle that and don’t let the institution mold around that.”

It is unlikely that Stevenson will ever see a push against trigger warnings as strong as UChicago, Sarah Bowen, director of student services, said. With students at a high school age, it is important that faculty help the students feel comfortable.

“I understand the philosophy of UChicago,” Bowen said. “It is important that students are exposed to many different ideas. But in a high school setting, we have more of a responsibility to make sure our students feel supported.”

According to Fritz, although trigger warnings are about promoting safety in the classroom, they also have the potential to promote an environment of exclusion. He is aware that students have certain triggers, but struggles to understand how offering trigger warnings truly is inclusive of everyone and protects the students from the vulgar material Stevenson has been trying to prevent.

“There is a whole framework of making sure everyone is included, but I find it really exclusive that, if you don’t discuss the topic perfectly, then you are being discriminatory,” Fritz said. “I think we need ways to include ourselves without telling people that they are arguing the argument wrong. At some point, there are so many trigger warnings thrown at each other, we can’t get viewpoints across.”

Both Bowen and English aim to maintain a balance between protecting students and fostering conversation, discussion and exposure to new ideas. On the other hand, Silverman feels like she was too sheltered at Stevenson and hopes to find dissenting opinions at college.

“I feel like I was constantly surrounded by like-minded people at Stevenson,” Silverman said. “Though trigger warnings weren’t used in high school, I feel like there was the same effect because I never saw any other opinions than my own.”

Though students like Silverman may find monotony in conversations in high school, faculty still have to be cautious about debates and discussions at a high school level English said. Though she understands the academic freedom that UChicago is trying to promote, English thinks they are being counterintuitive.

“I just find it funny,” English starts, “It’s almost as if the letter itself is acting as trigger warning to give notice that UChicago is not supporting trigger warnings.”

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UChicago urges open discussion