Thursday, September 01, 2016

The Letter

Guest post by Molly Fortnow, incoming member of the University of Chicago class of 2020.

On January 24, 2011, a miraculous thing happened. I was published on the internet for the very first time. Only twelve years old, a year into middle school, my fifteen year old sister and I decided to test Wikipedia, a source known for its open editing policy, and our findings were astonishing. So astonishing, in fact, that our father, the “famous computer scientist” (his words, not mine), let us write a guest post on his “very successful blog.” He titled it: Why My Kids Trust Wikipedia.

Half a decade later, it still comes up fifth when you google me.

Going back to this post now, I can’t help but laugh. The comments are full of grown adults set off in a frenzy by a child’s conjecture, disproving us with everything from personal anecdotes to computer science to the inner workings of Wikipedia itself. Some directly addressed my sister and me, and asked us questions–questions I never even read until now. One commenter told another, “way to miss the joke,” and others accused my father of making up the story. I have to laugh at this especially–there really was no joke. My sister and I legitimately did this, and we legitimately trusted Wikipedia from there on. I’m sorry we never read your responses to know otherwise.

Though I never so much as skimmed the responses until now, I am amazed at the passion some had for arguing with our point. Though an online comment section like this allows a screen to hide behind, I can’t help but notice the open inquiry and debate that this short, somewhat meaningless post sparked. One commenter even acknowledged this phenomenon, saying, “I would like to thank Annie and Molly Fortnow for raising this wonderful question.” First of all, you’re welcome! Second of all, you make a great point. Hearing and comprehending opinions that differ from your own and questioning and debating them, though it can be uncomfortable at times, is a wonderful opportunity to learn and grow as a thinker and a member of society.

In a way, a comments section isn’t so much different from a university–a place where people’s ideas and beliefs are challenged and uprooted. Of course, a place of higher learning is a much more intense example of this, a hotbed of young adults rapidly expanding their intellect while finding empowerment to take action for things they believe in. At my sister’s institution, Brandeis University, protests are regular and progressive thinking is a culture–and this is not an isolated example. Students are thinkers and activists, and a University is, across the board, a place that cultivates and harvests opinions of all kinds–though hopefully educated ones.

I’m an incoming member of the University of Chicago class of 2020, which might ring a bell as to why I’m writing this blog post in the first place. Just a few days ago, everyone in my graduating class was sent a letter from Dean of Students John Ellison outlining the university’s policies on free speech and open inquiry, with one especially controversial statement:
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.
The next day our class of 2020 facebook group exploded. In the days following everyone seemed to have an opinion about this, not just the members of my class. The letter was featured everywhere from personal blogs to the front page of the New York Times. Professor Kevin Gannon tore the letter down , saying that it “reeks of arrogance, of a sense of entitlement, of an exclusionary mindset....It’s not about academic freedom; it’s about power”–that it is simply a reminder to students that we have no real agency in deciding who gets to speak at our school or how we want to be treated in certain situations. Other publications commended the refreshing, if blunt, statement, and urged other colleges to follow suit–one Chicago Tribune Editorial asserted, “we love the commitment to the marketplace of ideas, the implicit endorsement of democratic freedoms and the sheer feistiness. Intended or no, the university's position is a direct challenge to other schools that have buckled when controversial speakers or ideas threaten to disrupt the fake idyll of groupthink.”

Everyone seems to disagree about everything about this letter, from its message to its implications. Is free speech on campuses a partisan issue? An age issue? Is the shutdown of free speech an epidemic at schools across the nation? Did Ellison misuse the phrases “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces”? Are these two things important to have or not have at universities?

I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but here’s my take, after reading dozens of articles, editorials, and blog posts, as well as lengthy Facebook posts written by both incoming and current students of UChicago, as a member of the class of 2020 and a recipient of the letter:

I grew up in just about the safest suburb in the country, north of Chicago, surrounded by people just like me–mostly white and Jewish, affluent, and on their way to being well educated. The public schools in that area are some of the best in the country, the kids, as privileged as kids can be. I moved a year into high school to Atlanta, GA, one of the most liberal cities in the southeast, where I attended an extremely liberal private high school. Though I certainly encountered ideas and opinions over the years that surprised me, pushed my comfort zone, and even made me uncomfortable at times, I also felt intellectually safe a majority of the time, and shared almost all of my views with my close friends and many of my classmates.

What UChicago is saying to me is, they want to burst this bubble I have lived in. I have spent most of my life in a space of intellectual security, a world that has been constructed for me but that doesn’t really exist. If I want to be able to face the world head on, I’m going to have to understand on a deeper level that creating spaces where I feel consistently comfortable and censoring my life from opinions I disagree with is counterproductive to understanding the world. A university, as a place of higher learning, has a responsibility to provide me with discussions that shove me outside of my comfort zone, that make me feel vulnerable and push me to think on a more complex level. For the first time in my life, I will be living in a community of people from a litany of different backgrounds, whose voices are sometimes radically different than mine. And it’s my responsibility not just to argue and assert my voice as well, but also to listen and learn.

Not everyone my age grew up in the bubble I did, and it’s unfair to justify this letter’s argument with the assumption that we need this policy because we are all too coddled, self-righteous, and entitled to know what’s best for ourselves. It’s also unfair to say there will be no social safe spaces–like clubs for LGBTQ+ kids–or trigger warnings for those who really need them, like a warning of graphic content for people who have gone through trauma surrounding the issue. In fact, several current students and professors–as well as Dean Ellison himself–have asserted that both of these things currently exist at the university, and aren’t likely to go away anytime soon.

But overall, I have to say I’m pretty proud to go to a school that wants to challenge me on a higher level than just being one of the most rigorous schools in the country (which it is). The founder of my high school, Elliott Galloway, once said, “My hope for you is that you always choose the difficult, not the easy life.” I chose this university because I knew that it would put me in challenging situations that would prepare me, like no other institution can, for life ahead.

Feel free to disagree in in the comments. Maybe I’ll even read them this time.


  1. Great post Molly! Congratulations and I hope you enjoy your intellectual journey at U Chicago!

  2. Wow, I wish I could write in w style like that! Also, you should definitely read this post as well in five years, after university is behind you...

  3. I believe it is a mistake to not push back harder against the misunderstanding of trigger warnings implicit in the letter. I wish your post did more to directly refute this problematic confusion instead of leaving a general impression of celebration and agreement with the letter that seemed altogether too charitable.

    Molly, what do you think a trigger warning is?

    Material that challenges your beliefs is not a trigger, though it can be upsetting. Material you disagree with is not a trigger. A trigger is material that causes you to experience dissociation, panic, or extreme somatic distress that you cannot control.

    Here's an example of a trigger warning: "the movie we're about to watch has a scene with a graphic depiction of rape. I'll let you know right before it happens." The movie still gets shown, but the warning lets students with a recent experience of rape figure out how to feel safe.

    I hope you get pushed outside of your comfort zone at UChicago and grow intellectually. And I also hope you don't lose compassion for people who don't find it so easy to navigate a world where academic freedom gets smugly equated with a lack of concern for the pain of others and even smart and well-meaning young women write in a way that seems to dismiss something crucial for some of us to be able to function well enough to even participate in academic life.

  4. I think the US schools have generally become too conservative regarding freedom of speech and exchange of ideas. This is really a result of extremist liberal activists who view expression of any idea inconsistent with their world view as an insult. The reaction is often in my opinion not different from religious extremists: they cannot defend their views rationally so they resort to silencing their opponents.

    The case of people losing their jobs because they expressed an opinion against these activist groups view point is beyond count. Let's take Larry Summers's case where the extremist activists forced him to step down because of what he said about women and math. I can disagree with this statement and explain why I do, but forcing him to step down because he disagrees and have a different opinion? It just shows who extreme the intolerance has become at the US schools. Same with many other issues. For me these extremist progressive activists are dogmatic ideological fundamentalists that have no interest in having a discussion, they know what is *the* truth and opinion of people who disagree with them means nothing to them.

    In my opinion this arrogant attitude of extremist progressives contributes to the loss of respect for the intellectuals and experts among conservatives and feeds the anti-intellectual movement that support politicians like Trump. We have reached a situation where discrimination against Republicans and conservatives might be higher than that against African-Americans and women. So conservatives have lost their appetite to listen to us and ignore us, and progressives have no appetite for listening to them, so we have ended up in this very divided country with no respect for each other to even let them speak their mind. It has turned into a social fight and universities have become castles hold by progressives and with that it is no surprise that we have such intolerance for expression of ideas opposed to ours. We are not interested in understanding where the other side is coming from, we know what is right and we judge them.

    ps: Internet in general is not a nice place, when arguing on the internet people very often have no empathy towards the other side and forget that they are humans just like them, something we generally are less likely to do when we meet people in person.

  5. The Dean's letter begs the question, whose voice is it that is speaking?

    • Dean Ellison's personal opinion?
    • Consensus opinion of the Faculty Senate?
    • Poll of students and faculty?

    Because the Dean's letter begs the question "Who speaks for the University of Chicago?", the letter effectively closes the door to any substantial changes in the answer to that question.

    So does the Dean's letter communicate anything more than "The Dean says it and that settles it"?

    It's not a satisfactory letter, is it?