March 26, 2015

The Price of Safe Spaces in Higher Education

Sign in Niagara Falls, Ontario, warning people not to climb over guard rail

 In case you missed it, take a look at this article by Judith Schulevitz from last Sunday's New York Times. It should be of interest to anyone concerned with what has been happening on college and university campuses in the U.S. with regard to the free expression of ideas and efforts to prevent students from being exposed to ideas that might conflict with their preconceived beliefs. It also helps to shed some light on what the new obsession with "safe spaces" is all about, why it is happening, and the detrimental impact it is having on educating those who will be our future.
Safe spaces are an expression of the conviction, increasingly prevalent among college students, that their schools should keep them from being “bombarded” by discomfiting or distressing viewpoints.
Try to wrap your head around that for a moment. College students convinced that they should be shielded from being exposed to potentially upsetting viewpoints. Is it possible to learn and grow without being exposed to new, challenging, and even upsetting perspectives? I don't think so.

Ms. Schulevitz initially seems to suggest that there might not be anything inherently wrong with the idea of safe spaces.
In most cases, safe spaces are innocuous gatherings of like-minded people who agree to refrain from ridicule, criticism or what they term microaggressions — subtle displays of racial or sexual bias — so that everyone can relax enough to explore the nuances of, say, a fluid gender identity. As long as all parties consent to such restrictions, these little islands of self-restraint seem like a perfectly fine idea.
Fear not, she's merely setting the reader up for what comes next. But I do find this idea about all parties consenting to speech restrictions to be an interesting one. Hypothetically, I suppose it could happen even if it seems extremely unlikely that it would.

What do you suppose happens when all parties do not consent to such restrictions? What happens when Christian students decide that their right to be protected from views that conflict with their deeply held beliefs (i.e., faith) are being violated by atheists expressing themselves on campus?

To her credit, Ms. Schulevitz clearly identifies the insidious manner in which safe spaces have a way of spreading well beyond their original intent.
But the notion that ticklish conversations must be scrubbed clean of controversy has a way of leaking out and spreading. Once you designate some spaces as safe, you imply that the rest are unsafe. It follows that they should be made safer.
Of course it does! Why shouldn't the entire campus be a safe space?

How come the Christian students get a safe space where they do not have to hear from atheist students? Shouldn't the Muslim students have one too? And come to think of it, why are we allowing these atheist students to speak out against religion anywhere on campus? It is terribly difficult to predict who might be triggered by hearing what they have to say.

To be clear, I do not oppose all attempts to create safe spaces on campus. I think it is possible for these programs to exist with a narrow scope and be a positive force for students in need. A clearly marked physical space can provide a brief reprieve for a troubled student seeking someone to talk to without being judged. This can happen without seeking to prevent anyone from being exposed to diverse views, suppress speech, wallow in outrage, and the like. I participated in an LGBT safe zone program for several years that managed to do this. Sadly, I am no longer able to do so.

This program was taken over by the sort of people described in this article (i.e., social justice warriors), and it was turned into something very different. We were informed that our continued participation was contingent on our willingness to sign a loyalty pledge, promising, among other things, that we would actively confront any sort of bigotry in any setting in which we encountered it. I was not willing to sign anything of the sort. Imposing my sociopolitical views on others over whom I have power (e.g., students) is not something in which I will participate. Confronting my homophobic boss and correcting my co-workers when they make potentially insensitive remarks is not something I am going to promise to do every time it happens. They lost me from this program because they decided that supporting LGBT students in need was not enough; I had to be an activist too. I think that is rather sad.

Needless to say, this article resonated with me in a major way. I work at a university that has been behind the times with regard to this sort of thing. We have been relatively sheltered from it due to being in an extremely conservative area. No more. In the last few years, these trends have made real inroads. I now hear about people being "triggered" or feeling "unsafe" due to encountering someone else's ideas almost every week. Some of the younger faculty and staff already accept these narratives uncritically. If a student feels bad, someone must be guilty for making them feel bad. Administration has decided to appease it out of their fear of lawsuits and bad publicity. It has been deeply discouraging to witness what this is doing to education. Faculty have been advised to steer clear of controversial subjects in the classroom, and students are not learning to apply essential critical thinking skills to emotionally relevant subjects.

Ms. Schulevitz is absolutely right when she says that the insistence on keeping everything safe is bad for everyone, including the students who ask for it.
The confusion is telling, though. It shows that while keeping college-level discussions “safe” may feel good to the hypersensitive, it’s bad for them and for everyone else. People ought to go to college to sharpen their wits and broaden their field of vision. Shield them from unfamiliar ideas, and they’ll never learn the discipline of seeing the world as other people see it. They’ll be unprepared for the social and intellectual headwinds that will hit them as soon as they step off the campuses whose climates they have so carefully controlled. What will they do when they hear opinions they’ve learned to shrink from? If they want to change the world, how will they learn to persuade people to join them?
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