As freshman were arriving at the University of Chicago, they were met by a letter from the Dean of Students that stated,

Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘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.

While there are lots of parts to the story, Beth McMurtrie’s analysis, With a Strong Stance on Safe Spaces, U. of Chicago Sends a Mixed Message to Students, highlights the contradiction at the heart of this letter. Her analysis highlights that the Dean emphasizes

  • academic freedom, the free exchange of ideas, and the need to listen to viewpoints with which we disagree
  • while at the same time excluding perspectives that advocate “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings.”

In other words, the Dean of Students takes the position we should tolerate all ideas except the ideas he disagrees with, engage in freedom of thought as longs as the thoughts agree with his.

I have always found this kind of logic maddening, precisely because it is the same logic that was so often used against theology and the religious identity of Catholic colleges and universities. In the spirit of tolerance, theology became marginalized in higher education, even in Catholic colleges and universities. The thinking was that theology was done from a particular perspective and operated with particular presuppositions, so how could it be tolerant of those with different views? Thus, it was excluded.

The issue turned on the belief that theology entailed a commitment and tolerance was neutral. Of course, this academic view of tolerance was not, in fact, neutral but a particular position.  In pretending to be neutral though, it was able to push theology and Catholic identity to the fringes as contrary to academic pursuits. (It is a position still present today.)

This is the same contradiction that is at play with the Dean of Students at the University of Chicago. He wants the free exchange of ideas as long as the ideas share his presuppositions about what are legitimate ideas. In his view, “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” are not legitimate. They are only “so—called” ideas. Perhaps, instead of issuing an edict from administrative authority, he should have suggested an academic debate about the legitimacy of these ideas?

This is why I like Catholic identity. It is not because it is always perfect. It is clearly not. It is not that it doesn’t cause any problems. It clearly does. It is just that it makes the position of the institution explicit. It means that there are values and principles held, from which people can argue and by which people are bound. In doing so, the free exchange of ideas can occur. Without a position that is explicit, the free exchange of ideas is so much more complicated. Rarely is an idea worked out in debates framed by agreed upon principles. Instead, as with the Dean of Students at the University of Chicago, one set of ideas is label as only “so-called” ideas and they are excluded, not by argument, but by whomever is holding the seat of power.