The University of Chicago is an intellectually elite school that can make fun of its seriousness. The slogans on undergraduate T-shirts immortalize it as "The level of hell Dante forgot" or the school "Where fun comes to die." They're only half-joking.
Chicago students take pride in being self-motivators with intellectual curiosity, eager to debate trendy "truths" and expose squishy emotional approaches that elevate feelings over facts. So it's hardly surprising that it's one of the first elite universities to rebel against the corrosive influences that, like kudzu, have swarmed across the ivy-covered inner sanctums of higher education.
"Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called 'trigger warnings,'" John Ellison, dean of students, wrote to members of the Class of 2020. He continued, saying, "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."
What seems so simple a creed for an institution of higher learning encouraging a free exchange of ideas was perceived as radically challenging, front-page news at The New York Times. Some of the politically correct schools that abound in the land were embarrassed by the university's "veiled" allusions to them. Their defenders sneered at the letter as a publicity stunt to lure conservative donors. But such complaints actually sounded more like a mournful mouthful of sour grapes.
It's true that conservatives regard the letter as bold and brave. But it's reaching a broader audience and coming during a particularly nasty presidential political campaign, which requires thoughtful, critical and insightful minds to cut through the name-calling and false promises (and false premises, too).
Hillary Clinton accuses Donald Trump of cultivating links to the Ku Klux Klan, and Trump calls Clinton a racial bigot. So it's no time to coddle fragile freshman psyches and keep them safe from "The Great Gatsby" because it includes scenes of "misogynistic violence," or "Huckleberry Finn" because Mark Twain used the N-word. Professors ought to encourage reading such works and include William Faulkner's novels, too. Their students might recognize something about Bubba and Hillary in Faulkner's depiction of the Snopes family, who exploits personal and political relationships to collect a mountain of money. The professors might assign Robert Penn Warren's "All the Kings Men," a novel about an abusive populist politician who looks a lot like former Sen. Huey P. Long, and see what that tells them about Trump.
Language is a major casualty on the politically correct campus. Race becomes a four-letter word that radiates destructive heat. A student at the University of Houston in Texas was punished for tweeting "All Lives Matter" after the shooting of five policemen in Dallas. The university student government sentenced the offending tweeter to mandatory diversity training.
At Princeton University, "man" is a three-letter, sexist word. In a four-page memo, administrators told employees that instead of using "man," it would be better to use "gender inclusive language," such as "human beings." But shouldn't that be hu-beings? Not so long ago, Wellesley College students were horrified by the realistic sculpture of a man clad only in his undershorts. "This isn't art!" one of them wrote. "It's sexual assault!" We can only imagine the damage to girly psyches when they see Michelangelo's David.
At Columbia University, students broke down the world's greatest literature into works depicting women raped and women not raped, all to warn against trigger mechanisms in the mind. That would make reading Ovid's "Metamorphoses" (with at least 80 instances of assault) particularly dangerous.
The sports world, usually a safe enough outlet for rougher play, isn't immune either. At the University of Iowa, a clinical professor of pediatrics wrote to athletic department officials expressing dismay over the ferocious facial expressions of Herky the Hawk. Herky, the mascot of the Hawkeyes, conveys "an invitation to aggressivity and even violence" and lacks "emotional diversity."
The University of Chicago dean's letter to students coincides with the publication of "Fail U: The False Promise of Higher Education," by Charles J. Sykes, who counts the costs of such foolishness. Parents are paying as much as $70,000 a year to educate their children, if what they get can always be called education.
Seeking safe places for students to shelter against troubling or traumatic "triggering" reached its nadir (so far) at Brown University, which provides a "safe room" with calming music, a video of puppies at play and trays of Play-Doh for the kiddies who are nostalgic for their lost innocence of childhood.
"Yes, academia is beyond parody," says Sykes. But maybe the dean's letter is the needed call to clear thinking. Like Monsieur Jourdain in Moliere's "Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme," who discovered to his wondrous delight that he could speak in prose, the kids might learn something.