St. John’s College in Annapolis. (Photo by Doug Plummer, courtesy of St. John’s College)

Last month, the University of Chicago told entering students they should not expect to get trigger warnings before professors embark on sensitive topics in class, or safe spaces where they can gather to avoid a speaker or event that offends them, intensifying a national debate about free speech and academia unfolding even as many students are confronting emotionally charged issues such as racism and sexual assault on campus. 

Here, Zena Hitz, a tutor at St. John’s College, in Maryland, where students debate great works in seminars guided by tutors rather than taking notes from professors in lecture halls, offers her perspective. 

Zena Hitz (Photo courtesy of St. John's College) Zena Hitz (Photo courtesy of St. John’s College)

Last week my students and I found ourselves discussing the laws concerning rape in the book of Deuteronomy.  With debates about safe spaces and trigger warnings all over the media, my spine stiffened when the topic came up.  Would my students noisily and cluelessly unsettle a person with a traumatic past?  Would students whose anger had been inflamed by campus activists shut down discussion entirely?

My worries dissipated as I watched my students struggle, openly and passionately, with questions about the limits of authority and the nature of punishment.

They found laws in the text that outraged their sensibilities, yet challenged each other to find something admirable in them.  They spoke as individuals but did not divide into factions.

Noisy majorities that drown out the marginalized are as great a danger to free inquiry as the fore-ordained conclusions of what is called “political correctness.”

So how can we make free inquiry — that is to say, real conversation — more common in the classroom?

Let us recognize that some of what passes for education on today’s college campuses is merely the clumsy imposition of a political agenda.

If so, it ought to be obvious that the right response is not simply to introduce a competing agenda.

The “freedom” that such diversity would imply is the exposure of young people to a chaotic competition for their use in political movements. The college campus in this view ends up a replica of the Internet in real life, with students picking their way among a host of gimmicky appeals toward the point of view they antecedently found most comfortable.

Can we imagine college classes being conducted without agendas, either political or scholarly?

If this seems a fantasy, can we imagine ways that the agendas that inevitably emerge would be constantly subject to self-critical eyes?

The small-scale culture of a college — not its rhetoric or its bureaucratic shortcuts — would be the only source of such a possibility.

Consider the serious challenges that an ordinary college lecture class faces in this regard. The content-providing professor proceeds according to his or her preestablished conclusions. Grades are constantly dribbled out in a way that can encourage followers or punish dissenters. The student as content-consumer has little incentive or indeed encouragement to undertake an inquiry where much of anything is at stake.

The architects of the liberal arts program at St. John’s and of the original core curriculum at the University of Chicago had an ingenious solution: Demote the professor to the status of a guide and give students the responsibility for the discussion.

The “teachers,” as my college’s advertising boasts, are the authors of great works, Plato, Newton, Austen or DuBois. Let students pursue the questions they bring to the classroom with the books as interlocutors and with their fellow students and teachers as helpers. Let the faculty step back and ensure that the discussions are careful, respectful and relentlessly pursue the truth. And use grades only to signal to outside institutions the student’s fitness for further study.

A great work is one sufficiently complex and majestic to support conflicting interpretations. But it is also one that exposes questions crucial to humanity: on the just structure of society, yes, but also the existence or nonexistence of divinities; the nature of matter and the laws of nature; the inner workings of mathematics; and the pitfalls of the human mind and heart.

Discussing such works is a bottomless journey, pursued in acknowledged ignorance and punctuated by flashes of insight.

Such discussions train us in respecting others, in facing our own inadequacy and in patiently seeking out the reality of a situation. Training the natural and spontaneous interest of a young person in fundamental questions is an excellent preparation for life.

After all, agendas come and go. The challenge is to maintain a broad perspective in an environment driven by money-making fads and more sinister attempts to exploit human beings in the search for power and profit.

The interior freedom an authentic liberal education imparts is the safest space on earth.