BY KENDYL COUNTS
University of Chicago dean Jay Ellison kicked off the new school year in a controversial way. Upon opening their mailboxes, many of the university’s incoming freshmen were shocked to find a letter denouncing “trigger-warnings” and the creation of “intellectual safe spaces, where individuals can retreat from ideas at odds with their own.” Though trigger-warnings and safe spaces have value as social agreements, they have no place in a classroom where students have but one task: to expand the scope of their awareness.
Trigger warnings are commonly used to shield people from sensitive topics that may revive troubling memories, and safe-spaces are environments created to be a secure setting where people can express themselves freely. Both involve an inherent level of censorship – often in safe spaces, there is an implicit agreement that some things should simply remain unspoken to ensure comfort for members. Trigger warnings, by similar virtue, are a way of marking a word or topic so that it’s avoided in conversation to prevent uneasiness among those hearing it.
When used sparingly and responsibly, both trigger warnings and safe spaces can create a comfortable atmosphere where individuals can openly discuss their experiences without fear of judgement by their peers. Cooper City High School’s LGBT+ Club perfectly exemplifies an effective safe space, in which the members can voice their feelings in a secure, non-threatening setting.
However, in an academic environment, safe spaces can impede healthy discussion. Intellectual safe spaces are the equivalent of plugging your ears during an argument – they promote a disconnect between the two viewpoints, in which one side prevails while the other is silenced. Their application extends most directly to political, social, and moral conflicts – discussions in which many find a perspective so offensive that they are unwilling to listen to any possible explanation. This attitude perpetuates close-mindedness and prevents the free flow of information; in the process of stifling the ideas of certain students because they make others uncomfortable, valid points and new conclusions can be withheld and overlooked.
Many classes by their very nature, entail discussion of delicate topics. A criminal law professor, for example, might find trigger warnings to be a hinderance in their class because they are covering sensitive material. Cooper City High School’s Holocaust Studies elective or World History classes may include content that troubles some students but is important to know when holistically examining the world’s history. Similarly, teaching students how to discuss different perspectives is a core part of the curriculum of many classes, ranging from English to AP Capstone: Seminar. In these instances, use of a safe space could cause some students to feel as though the side they’ve taken on an issue is being protected, while others might feel that their opinion is being suppressed.
Differing opinions and the obligation to communicate them are an essential part of a functioning society. The University of Chicago asks that all students are “engaged in rigorous debate, discussion, and even disagreement” to preserve the community’s “diversity of opinion.” This lack of restriction on what students are permitted to express ensures that students are exposed to a wide variety of ideas, enriching their field of knowledge and teaching them how to defend their stance on issues. The challenge of facing opposing ideas forces individuals to define their own – an experience that is necessary for personal and academic growth.
Though the university itself refuses to be considered a “safe space,” addressing what students are uncomfortable with can still be managed on an individual basis. Individual clubs, meetings, and organizations within the university are not barred from identifying as safe spaces, and what students find to be triggering can be avoided under many circumstances.
“In High School, because you are required to take many classes, people shouldn’t be required to sit through things they really don’t want to,” CCHS Junior Caleb Neale said. “However, in college you get to choose your classes and professors and therefore it’s your own fault for picking a class with content you don’t want to hear.”
At Cooper City High School, students should have the option to seek secure situations where they do not have to worry about others challenging their opinions. In the classroom, though, where some sets of ideals might outnumber and eclipse others, it is important to remember that everyone is entitled to free speech and unrestricted thought for the purpose of academic gain.