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How Are Our Kids Supposed to Prepare for the Real World When Colleges Are Doing This?

Photograph by Twenty20

The University of Chicago sent its incoming students, the class of 2020, a radical welcome-to-college letter. In it, the Dean of Students congratulated the students on “earning a place in the community of scholars,” and let them know that the university priority was to foster the “free exchange of ideas.” Part of that “free exchange” means that the university will not support “so-called ‘trigger warnings’” or condone “the creation of intellectual safe spaces.”

Trigger warnings, which began as flags on blog posts to warn trauma survivors that the piece contained sexually violent or disturbing content, have expanded in scope to include content that is controversial, sexist, racist, classist or involves concepts of privilege and oppression. In fact, some university professors include trigger warnings in their syllabi to warn students that potentially triggering material will be discussed and analyzed in class.

None of those professors work at the University of Chicago, presumably, where annual tuition and on-campus room and board for undergraduates totals $71,559.

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Safe spaces, which have also been outlawed by the University of Chicago, date to the post-Civil Rights era and began as refuges for minority, gay, and lesbian students.

Again, don't go looking for them at the University of Chicago, because they have been sacrificed to the bigger ideals of intellectual freedom and academic rigor.

When I first saw the headline about the University of Chicago, I pumped my fist, thinking: Of course a university must stand for intellectual freedom! Why is this even news?

How are students supposed to be prepared for the real world if their colleges continue to shield them from the discomfort of reality?

I was an English major—I love the boost to free speech. In the past few years, I've scoffed at universities and colleges that have canceled speakers because students found them too "controversial." In 2014, student protests forced Condoleezza Rice to cancel as a commencement speaker, when outrage about her alleged role in torture and the Iraq War grew to a fevered pitch. I'm no war lover, and I certainly hope my children grow up opposing torture, but the world is full of complex situations and the all too human leaders who must navigate them. Why would we encourage our children to stick their heads in the sand and pretend like the murky facts of war and politics don't exist just because the brutal realities of it hurts their feelings?

Similarly, Williams College rescinded its offer to mathematician John Derbyshire to speak on campus after student protested that his work was based on racist rantings. Williams College President ultimately agreed that Derbyshire's work "went over a line," and his engagement was canceled. This sounded preposterous to me. How are students supposed to be prepared for the real world if their colleges continue to shield them from the discomfort of reality? The commencement speaker at my college graduation was a war monger of the highest order. I wasn't happy—I wanted Bono to speak—but I sat through his stupid speech about American values then went on with my life.

Why are these colleges bending over backwards to keep students from feeling anything negative?

They should totally let me run a college because I would know where to draw the line between academic freedom and offensiveness every time.

When I'm not pretending to run a liberal arts college, I'm raising an actual daughter. Though she's still in grammar school, I’m already thinking about and saving for her college. When she heads off to school, she sure as hell better be at a place that stands for academic freedom. I expect the institutions that educate my child to provide opportunities for her to confront ideas that disturb and destabilize her.

You know why? Because adults have to do that every day. That’s what life is.

If my daughter's first chance to grapple with the realness of Real Life comes when she is 22 years old, then I will have failed and so will her college. She's got to come out of college ready to smash the patriarchy, and she can't if she's been sequestered in a padded room with Enya music and adult coloring books.

That was my knee-jerk reaction to the headline and the first article about the University of Chicago’s approach.

For some minority students, a 'safe space' is a vital part to their success at college because 'students don’t fully embrace uncomfortable learning unless they themselves are comfortable.'

Then I kept reading about what it means to not condone safe spaces. Not all institutions of higher learning agree that “safe places” should be eliminated from campuses. In January, the president of Northwestern University (also in my hometown of Chicago) championed “safe spaces” as a right that all students “deserve.” He also noted that, for some minority students, a “safe space” is a vital part to their success at college because “students don’t fully embrace uncomfortable learning unless they themselves are comfortable.”

At Northwestern, the Black House, a center for black student life, has existed for more than four decades. When it was suggested that one of the multicultural offices be housed on its property, the reaction from current black students and alumni was swift and powerful: They wanted to keep the Black House as a "safe space" for exclusively black students.

A current University of Chicago student echoed this idea. A sophomore who self-described as a "first-generation, low-income person of color,” strongly disagreed with the university’s move to align itself as solely in favor of academic freedom at the expense of students’ safety and comfort. He described the university’s move as insensitive and inconsiderate to the people who need safe spaces—namely, anyone who is not a privileged, high-income white male.

I was no longer shaking my fist. One of my children is not a white male. In 10 short years, she may be a student who needs a safe space—because she’s a woman or Jewish or concerned about sexual assault on campus. And even if she doesn’t need a safe space, there are clearly some young adults who do. It feels wrong to cheer their elimination when they are vital to some students. Northwestern's Black House makes that clear.

I'm fully on board for safe spaces. I don't get why a university would outlaw them when they don't impinge on anyone else's freedom. They're simply havens for students who are not part of the mainstream. They aren't asking for anything except space.

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As for trigger warnings, I'm still not convinced. I'm sorry, if you sign up for American History, 1850-1900, you should know that it's going to touch on the savagery that was American slavery. Students should be horrified by this, as well as the Holocaust or the treatment of child laborers in the early part of the industrial era or the child abuse scandals in the Catholic Church. Learning involves confronting countless triggers, and there's no way for any professor to know what will trigger any one of her students. Unlike safe spaces, trigger warnings infantilize students and suggest that they are not emotionally capable of handling college-level material, plenty of which will disturb them.

In the liberal arts college I run, I will suggest that professors resist the temptation to add trigger warnings.

In the end, I hope my daughter lands at an institution that strikes a balance between the competing demands of academic freedom and students’ emotional safety. Surely, there’s a way to have both. And if I’m paying upwards of $71K per year, you better believe I’ll feel entitled to demand there are. So should she.

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