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Trigger Warning Time

Friday, November 25, 2016 10:25
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Few welcome letters to incoming freshmen have received as much attention as one sent by the University of Chicago this year. The document—a statement of opposition to controversial forms of emotional protection on campus—initiated another round of bickering between free speech advocates and their critics on the left.

“Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support ‘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,” wrote Dean of Students John Ellison.

Ellison’s comment about trigger warnings—which are occasionally employed by professors who wish to forewarn their students that something in the course curriculum might upset them—generated the most pushback. Some even said the letter violated academic freedom: After all, if professors want to use trigger warnings, shouldn’t they be allowed to do so? The University of Chicago swiftly clarified that professors retain this right; the purpose of the letter was merely to prepare students not to expect to be babied in the classroom.

In the wake of the letter’s publication, other universities, such as Northwestern University and Evergreen State College, rushed to assure their students that coddling was still on the menu. But Chicago isn’t entirely alone: Claremont McKenna College President Hiram Chodosh subsequently sent a letter to his students that declared, in no uncertain terms: “We teach sensitive material. We do not mandate trigger warnings.”


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