Chicago’s “Trigger Warning” Letter Is very un-Chicago

Jay Ellison’s recent letter on trigger warnings made the rounds of social media late last week, and this week the story continues to circulate. It’s a topic that hits close to home for me. I have two degrees (MA and Ph.D.) from Chicago. As a student, I worked part time in the Social Sciences and Humanities division and full time in Physical Sciences, punching down cross connects in building basements and visiting faculty offices to explain what ‘the web’ was. I sang the Sunday service in Rockefeller chapel, was married at Hillel, and had the reception at Ida Noyes (long story). At one point when I was writing up my Ph.D., working part time, and serving as the Starr Lecturer in anthropology, I joked that I was student, staff, faculty, and alum — simultaneously. I’ve been told that my latest book is featured on the front table of the Seminary Coop. What could be more Chicago then that?

That said, there are many people more connected to the university than I am. I am just an alum. But I still feel connected to my alma mater. That’s why I’m writing this letter to argue that Ellison’s letter is on the wrong side of this issue in general, and in violation of our university’s long-held academic values in particular.

In some sense, Ellison’s letter has little to do with Chicago itself. A newcomer to the university, Ellison is a full-time administrator with no faculty appointment (as far as I can tell) and, worse of all, has a Ph.D. from Harvard: A light-weight, blue-blooded institution which all true Chicago grads recognize as far more concerned with maintaining its cultural capital than letting scientia crescat and vita excolatur (of course, it could be worse — he could be from Yale).

The idea of such a person dictating the tone of the university to its faculty and students is, of course, a sign of the ludicrous and persistent overreach of administration into academic life. The letter may have been on Chicago stationary but, I will argue, very little of it resonates with people who have a deep knowledge of the institution. I apologize for such polemic language, but rest secure in the knowledge that Ellison will welcome his discomfort in reading it as a sign of his academic integrity.

And in fact, most of the debate around Ellison’s letter has not actually been about Chicago at all, but about what the letter says about other institutions. What does Bowdoin think of it, what does Brown think of it, etc. etc. etc. But this letter was not about The National Debate. It was about Chicago. So in this piece I want to say something concrete and substantive about Chicago’s unique history and viewpoint — the actual history of its approach to freedom of speech and inquiry.

But before I make these points, I want to acknowledge the legitimacy of the position that competes with mine: That the University of Chicago is not just a place where you might sometimes be uncomfortable, it is a place where the excellence in academic life is necessarily and essentially connected with cruelty and ruthlessness. On this account, students do not deserve safety because safety is for the weak, lazy, and stupid. The life of the mind necessarily requires mercilessness and the humiliation of your interlocutors. It is the price paid for Truth.

This is the elephant in the room: At Chicago, humiliation is not something that is only meted out to victims of rape or people of color. The university has a rich history of relentless, badgering meanness — both in how its faculty treat each other, and in how they treat its students. And this attitude has been a part of the institution for a long time.

Consider, for instance, James Redfield’s memory of Joseph Schwab:

“Joe was the only teacher I have ever seen who made you feel that he just opened your head and made you think. In his earlier years before his psychoanalysis, no class was complete until somebody had been reduced to tears. In his later years, he only made you feel like crying. He was absolutely ferocious. When people talk about Socrates, they talk about him the same way. Socrates really makes you feel lousy.”

Wayne Booth — who once wrote a piece entitled “The Good Teacher as Threat” — had this to say about his mentor, Ronald Crane:

“Crane took it for granted that a student would want to find out the truth about a subject more than he would want to be loved by his teacher… and he was sometimes surprised to discover that his rigorous criticism had been taken personally and interpreted as hostility. Students… were often surprised to discover that the man who had appeared to be a brutal enemy was in fact one who loved them. His passion for truth… expressed itself in searing criticism of other scholars’ generalizations. I shall never forget the seminar period which left me, one day, in despair; a paper which I had thought might serve as a chapter in my dissertation had been annihilated before my eyes, and I felt that in the process I had learned my own unfitness for scholarship…. I began to discover why Crane himself published so little: he applied to his own work the same rigorous standards he applied to us, and few of his drafts could escape the wastebasket.”

Wayne Booth was a kind and gentle person whose success as an educator was undergirded by a fundamental decency. To me, his claim that Crane loved his students says more about Wayne’s character than Crane’s. But the language in these passages is telling. In these two examples, we see words like “ferocious” “threat” “brutal enemy” “searing criticism” and “annihilated”. And these are passages from pieces meant to laud the institution’s faculty.

I could cite examples from my own career at Chicago: The professor who told me that his female colleague was a success only because she “spread her legs”, or when I arrived at a professor’s office to find him screaming as loud as he could into the phone, demanding that he get his way. I could go on. I know that these things happen at lots of universities. My argument is that, historically, Chicago has excelled in them.

Redfield and Booth’s reminiscences jive with my experience of Chicago. I was once told that guard dogs are trained as puppies by being locked in a small cage, which is then repeatedly shaken. The goal was to instill in them a deep sense of territoriality, fear, and rage. I’ve often felt this metaphor perfectly describes my time at the University of Chicago. The other metaphor I’m drawn to also focuses on violent potency: At Chicago, I often felt like a carefully crafted katana, forged by being folded over and over, beaten unremittingly and interminably until I was a uniquely honed weapon capable of slicing through opponents with a single strike. In a way there’s something very leveling about Chicago’s attitude in this regard: Come with all the white privilege you have. By the time we’re done with you, we’ll see how privileged you feel.

I’m glad I received the training I did, although I try not to use my powers for evil. It makes me unfuckable-with. It allows me to shelter the junior scholars who I mentor from external forces which can yell louder than them — but not louder than me. It has made me more reflective, more intelligent, more disciplined, and more intellectually focused. I feel enormously privileged to have gone to the University of Chicago, but deeply regret the way I victimized my fellow students when I was there.

So you see, the real reason why the University of Chicago fears attempts to make people of color and survivors of sexual assault feel safe in the classroom is that such safety represents an existential threat to what some consider the institution’s core values: An ethos which values the ruthless persecution of the intellectually and emotionally weak. Those who argue that cruelty is an essential part of the University of Chicago have history and tradition on their side.

* * *

As Donald Levine points out, academic projects orient themselves through ‘vision’ — narratives of their past that they use to orient themselves to their future. There are many different visions of Chicago’s past, and which we chose greatly shapes the course we take. Consider, for example, the question: “How shall we teach in the College?” If you think of Chicago as the home of John Dewey’s process- and experience-oriented curriculum, you will chose one path. If you think of it as the last bulwark of Mortimer Adler’s Great Book project, you will get a very different syllabus.

Chicago’s yoking of cruelty and intellectualism is a legitimate construal of the school’s past. But it is just one of many possible visions. I have another. To me, this ethos of mercilessness is an accidental, not essential, part of the institution’s core values. To me, cruelty is a failure of Chicago’s ideals, not their exemplification. To me, the essence of Chicago is its unblinking commitment to the project of trying to understand what is true and what is not. This public use of reason can seem heartless at times, since it has no interest in maintaining false claims merely because they are emotionally satisfying. But it does not necessarily exclude collegiality, warmth and nurturance.

It is important to remember that the opposite of ‘the public use of reason’ is not ‘safe space.’ It is ‘war.’ The great thinkers who fill Chicago’s shelves and seminar rooms were committed to carving out a space within which reason is paramount over passion, sophistry, and self-interest. To be sure, their cultural backgrounds varied greatly: Socrates demanded to know how generals can claim to be brave without being capable of giving an account of bravery, while Hobbes insisted that deductive logic and not civil war could ground a Stuart kingship. They did not stand aloof from the issues of their day — their work was intimately connected to it. But they believed that thinking had consequences, was important, and needed a place where it could occur unfettered. This is the space invoked by Machiavelli when he described how, in exile, his study was a sanctuary for him:

“When evening comes, I return home and enter my study; I take off my workday clothes, covered with mud and dirt, and put on the garments of court and palace. Fitted out appropriately, I step inside the venerable courts of the ancients, where, solicitously received by them, I nourish myself on that food that alone is mine and for which I was born; where I am unashamed to converse with them and to question them about the motives for their actions, and they, out of their human kindness, answer me. And for four hours at a time I feel no boredom, I forget all my troubles, I do not dread poverty, and I am not terrified by death.” 

“Unashamed.” “human kindness.” “I do not dread poverty.” “I am not terrified of death.” Civil society is in fact a ‘safe space’. That is what the ‘civil’ in ‘civil’ society means. It is a place where words will not lead to blows. It is a place where the quality of your arguments matter more than the color of your skin. It is a place where hierarchy is less important than logic. It is place where people are committed enough to the project of reasoned discourse that they can bracket off their other concerns and let the work of discussion take place. It is a place where professors (or at least my professors) asked to be referred to as ‘mister’ and ‘miss’ rather than ‘professor’ or ‘doctor’ because deference to authority hinders democratic debate. Hyde Park is literally the place where, when two people stop in the middle of the sidewalk to argue about Rousseau’s concept of amour propre, they don’t step to the side of the road — passers-by go around them. I know because I have done this.

In fact, the essence of the University of Chicago just is to create a safe space for the public use of reason. In order to create this space, the great thinkers who proceeded us  renounced unfettered freedom in the name of reason. The idea that consideration of another person’s feelings is an intolerable limitation of academic freedom could only be held by someone ignorant of the classics of Western civilization which are central to Chicago’s history.

Restraint and self-control have always been at the center of the public use of reason. Mediterranean antiquity valued cultivated citizens who could control their passions, rather than be controlled by them. The Christian gentlemen who founded our country argued that Americans should be free of external regulation because they were capable of regulating themselves. The Talmud glorifies in machloket (passionate debate), but only in the name of heaven. If Chicago was once, as the old line goes, the place where “atheistic Jews teaching Thomism to doubting Protestants” it must have fallen very, very far indeed to forget these precedents of civility, self-control, and the nobility of study.

To be sure, the safe space Harper and Rockefeller founded appealed only to a certain kind of person, and it had a certain kind of ethos. To this extent, their project was incomplete. Today we should continue their mission to create a safe space for debate. In higher education today, we are simply recalibrating our standards of what constitutes civil discourse. We are doing this by asking everyone — not just some people — what they think the limits of civil discourse should be. It is profoundly in accordance with Chicago’s values and history to undertake a grand experiment to determine what form of community would best produce a society of learned men and women who could collegially pursue the life of the mind — historically, in fact, we have called this grand experiment ‘The University of Chicago’. Renewing Chicago’s commitment to this experiment in the twenty first century means trying to realize our values of democratic equality. Imagine what a powerful achievement if Chicago led the way by creating a world-class university in which people of color and rape survivors only felt uncomfortable.

This, to me, is the saddest thing about Ellison’s letter:  its abandonment of Chicago’s true ideals, not its fulfillment of them. One of the hallmarks of Chicago’s educational practice is to question our taken for granted assumptions about what education is. Chicago is the university that build the Mansuetto library instead of moving its books off site. Chicago is the school where Robert Hutchins axed the football team and gave degrees to anyone who could pass the university’s test. Chicago is the school where John Dewey boldly swept away Victorian pedagogy and replaced it with learning by doing. It is the school where Joseph Schwab taught biology in a discussion seminar and not a lab. It is the school where, when Katherine Dunham apologized to Robert Redfield for dropping out of her Ph.D. program to become a professional dancer, Redfield replied “what’s wrong with being a dancer?”

Trigger warnings should be on Chicago syllabi — as class readings. If I were teaching the core, I’d assign them the same day as the Apologia and ask if Socrates was for or against safe spaces. At the university which once asked ‘are classes necessary’ and ‘why have majors’ and ‘is a canon necessary?’ Chicago’s faculty should take the lead in engaging the debate on collegiality for all, not denying that debate’s importance. Chicago should, as Jerry Graff wrote, be ‘teaching the conflict’, incorporating into its core. Instead, the university is erecting a safe space (I use the term intentionally here) in which its taken for granted assumptions will not be questioned. And there is nothing — nothing — less Chicago then that.

* * *

Back when I was at Chicago I sang with the motet choir. As a result I attended over a dozen graduation ceremonies, singing an anthem at the beginning of the ceremony and the alma mater at its end. We sat in the choir loft of Rockefeller chapel, in back of the brass quartet that vamped Praetorius while the graduates processed and recessed in their maroon robes. As a result, I heard then-president Hugo Sonnenschein tell graduates over and over again that they should continue to “ask hard questions, and not accept easy answers” now that they had entered into “this esteemed body of learned men and women”.

The easy answer is sending a letter to people telling them we aren’t interested in hearing what they think freedom is. The hard question is: What do we do if we take them seriously?

In the past, Chicago has led the academy by making choices that were unconventional but true to its own vision. Today, the university is facing another turning point. In doing so, it must decide which version of its past it wishes to embrace — the one driven to seek passionate and unfettered intellectual exchange in all of its forms, or the once which believes cruelty is an essential part of the life of the mind. Either choice is valid. The world is watching.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

5 thoughts on “Chicago’s “Trigger Warning” Letter Is very un-Chicago

  1. Jay Ellison makes a few valid points in his long post but, surprisingly, he completely misses the point of Ellison’s letter (not to mention the fact that by trying to belittle Ellison stature at Chicago he only weakens his argument). I applaud the letter sent to the incoming freshman and I am delighted that my alma mater is standing up to the current trend in campus political correctness that shuts down dialogue and allows small groups of disgruntled students (and a few of their supporters from among faculty and staff) to force the universities to disinvite speakers these students may disagree with or are afraid to hear and assault professors who express unpopular views. I believe that the whole uproar about this letter stems largely from confusion between literal “safe spaces” for minorities (of all kinds) on campus and intellectual “safe spaces” that certain groups on campus (currently they are predominantly those engaged in radical identity politics and/or left wing activism) insist on creating and guarding. If students are going to hear only those views expressed that they wish to hear, what is going to happen to our universities and the educational process itself? As anthropologists we should be squarely on the side of open dialogue, debate and a multiplicity of viewpoints and not party lines, rigid political correctness, and Orwellian language policing. If students are increasingly afraid to disagree with their professors because their views might be branded politically incorrect, conservative, and God forbid “elitist” and thus result in low grades, what is happening to higher education? It will be a sad commentary on the current campus activists, whose 1960s predecessors fought for free speech and who are now fighting against it.

  2. Bravo! Bravissimo! I wasn’t brave enough to go to Chicago. But whenever I remember my best teachers and mentors, what leaps out at me is a tough-minded ruthlessness that cared more for the topic at hand than what I might be feeling about it.

  3. Alex Golub defends the practice of universities creating “safe spaces” for students and denounces the University of Chicago’s Dean of Students letter as a specimen of the “cruelty” he finds a part of that university’s tradition.
    As one who despises the trend toward providing “safe spaces” as a form of intellectual cowardice, I object to Golub’s post.
    To apply his standards:
    It is mean (Moderator Golub will recognize this as a valid editorial criticism).
    It is mean, and thus not nice, because it belittles a fellow human being – and academic to boot – because of his brief tenure at U of C, because of his job (a lowly administrator and not a venerable faculty member), because of his Harvard Ph.D. Note his mean description of Harvard as a “light-weight, blue-blooded institution.” In Golub’s words:

    “In some sense, Ellison’s letter has little to do with Chicago itself. A newcomer to the university, Ellison is a full-time administrator with no faculty appointment (as far as I can tell) and, worse of all, has a Ph.D. from Harvard: A light-weight, blue-blooded institution which all true Chicago grads recognize as far more concerned with maintaining its cultural capital than letting scientia crescat and vita excolatur (of course, it could be worse — he could be fromYale).”

    Gee, all this harsh talk that seems to take direct aim at my deeply held sentiments vis-à-vis “safe spaces” has got me feeling very threatened, and definitely microaggressed on. If U of C will not provide them, please could Savage Minds become an authorized safe space for anthropologists? It could be renamed Moderated Minds. The right Moderator can make it happen.

    P. S. Golub notes that he holds an M.A. and Ph.D from Chicago. So do I. My main professors were Raymond T. Smith, Victor Turner, Clifford Geertz, and David Schneider, all towering intellects possessing great intellectual courage – which I define as an eagerness to leave conventional paths in favor of uncharted realms of thought. I wonder what they would have said about the current trend to create safe spaces for students, and what they would have thought about the Dean’s letter. We can’t ask them, but I have a hunch.

  4. The discourse on “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” in higher education appears to intersect with expanding notions of “violence” — physical, emotional, and/or psychological. In this instance, I think the latter proves to be most crucial. Without an expanding notion of violence, akin to expanding notions of “equality” and “freedom,” this debate would lose the “air” that gives birth to the “fire,” no?

    I would like to echo Sergei Khan in stating that this discourse direly needs to begin distinguishing “physical safe space” from “intellectual safe space” — to the extent possible (I recognize the potential for overlap and for these conceptions to be intertwined, etc). Otherwise, we risk losing many of the benefits of this discourse: a more inclusive, vibrant, and robust educational system whose credence to open dialogue and debate is truly prioritized.

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