In a recent letter, U. of C. dean John Ellison told students "safe spaces" and "trigger warnings" have no place on campus. Credit: Anh Dinh

Famous—or notorious—overnight, the recent letter to University of Chicago students from the dean of students letting them know “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” had no place on campus set off the best kind of debate. Neither side’s completely right or completely wrong and both value a good education. Where they disagree is primarily in their perspectives—always a good thing to compare. 

The perspective that made me wince came in a headline on the website of the Daily Beast: “University of Chicago’s P.C. Crackdown Is Really About Keeping Right-Wing Donors Happy.” “This letter’s true audience,” argued the writer, Jay Michaelson, “was not the students to which it was addressed, but the alumni who can now read it on the right-wing blogosphere.”

There’s reason to question the university’s agenda. As the Tribune pointed out, the U. of C. was already heavily into the “safe space” business when dean John Ellison said it wasn’t. Ellison himself was identified as a safe-space resource. But to me there’s something reflexive and adolescent about dividing the human population into a left wing and a right wing, whatever the subject of disagreement, and this is a particularly awkward instance of it. Ellison’s letter came to my attention when a flurry of private e-mails applauded it, and none of those e-mail were written by anybody on the right. For instance, this came from an alum of Princeton University, which was once headed by Woodrow Wilson:

When I was educated they didn’t warn you to put your fingers in your ears or avert your eyes if you didn’t want to hear how Woodrow Wilson was racist or read about sex in Ulysses. I’m with the U. of C.

Another person recalled the time years ago when Robert McNamara—then head of the World Bank but earlier the secretary of defense and a principal architect of the Vietnam war—was invited to the U. of C. to get an award and students rose up in protest. “That protest I could understand,” she wrote. “But this generalized nanny overprotection of students is troubling on so many levels. So, again, good for the U. of C.”

Back in the day at the University of Missouri (which, I concede, I easily sentimentalize), college itself was thought of as a safe space, a place where it was safe to be an atheist or a Trotskyite or an unwashed bum. Or gay, as several residents of my dorm unabashedly were. Or any of the dozens of other things you couldn’t possibly be in high school or at home. We went off to college to confront and affront and grow up. How safe do people feel who must constantly monitor what they say lest the next words out of their mouths be the wrong words?

Rich alumni are people every college has to deal with, and the U. of C. is no exception. But I don’t think they explain the debate over safe spaces. A much bigger divide is generational. Today’s students just don’t seem to be able to make their seniors appreciate the trials they go through. 

“We do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own,” Ellison said in the letter. Rereading it, I’m a little less impressed. A retreat from hostilities isn’t the same thing as cutting and running. Armies don’t spend four years in nonstop combat. Now and then they rotate off the front lines so they can sing songs and read letters from home. Ellison didn’t make it clear if he understands that.

We all need to keep talking.