When Safe Classrooms Become Dangerous For Learning

In the ever-growing atmosphere of the coddled child, where everyone’s a winner and no one loses, where trying counts more than succeeding, and where it is becoming increasingly acceptable to censor, chastise, and even ridicule those who freely speak their minds in the name of “political correctness,” the birth of an intellectual safe haven is not altogether very surprising.

The phenomenon of the safe space is rapidly introducing itself across college campuses everywhere. The idea of a haven for those who feel that they are subject to microaggressions and uncomfortable scenarios seems perfectly sound. Yet, as soon as these forums are introduced into the social atmosphere of an institution there is always the trouble of its effect trickling down into the intellectual life of the school. The result is a classroom setting in which no one is challenged and no one can learn. If everyone feels like they need to tiptoe around subjects, nothing will get said. There should be no need to rekindle the politically correct movement—if we as Boston College students vow to be respectful to one another, then our dialogues should be free to include everyone’s comments and ideas.

We come to higher education to be exposed, challenged, and to grow. How can a student achieve this if they are given the opportunity to run away and hide when the going gets tough? If college is supposed to prepare us for the real world, then shouldn’t it be structured similarly to it? Beyond our tall academic towers, there hovers the real world. Within that society there are no spaces to escape what might make us cringe or become unsettled. It is high time, even at our tender, collegiate age, to accept this as fact.

If material or discourse troubles us, then should we not dive further into it, dissect it and analyze it, in order to find out why it makes us feel this way, so that we may combat it? Instead, a “safe space” allows us the chance to push substance under the rug and pretend it doesn’t exist. If we as students are doing that, then our college education is failing us. Or perhaps it is better stated as: we are failing our college education.

If academic material becomes censored because of the possibility of negative manifestations within us, not only is our education compromised, but our social skills are, too. If we recoil from a slightly uncomfortable discussion in a classroom setting, how are we going to be able to deal with the societal realities of rejection, discrimination, and subjection?  It is a university’s job to teach its students bravery, not cowardice. It is a university’s job to instill in its students the ability to speak up when they are uncomfortable, not to leave the room. It is a university’s job to empower their students to condemn what is wrong, what is hurtful and what is discriminatory—not to have them shy away from the challenge. If we are going to allow our university to do its job, the student body must rid itself of any concept of an intellectual safe-haven.

Criticism of the safe space is widespread, ranging from academics, newspaper columnists, and even celebrities, such as comedians Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock, who refuse to bring their stand-up acts to collegiate settings because of, as they perceive it, overly sensitive student bodies. If the real world is condemning intellectual institutions for harboring some bubble-like protective sphere around its student body, shouldn’t someone start to do something to combat this effect? Clearly, the repercussions of the safe space are not isolated to those who choose to partake in it. Not only do intellectual safe spaces pose a threat to those who might be challenged, but moreover this politically correct movement stifles other students’ ideas, as they are afraid of damaging their peers with their perspectives. Does that sound like a healthy environment for learning to take place? We want to teach our students respect, not censorship.

Unfortunately, professors cannot fight this fight. In fact, professors are suffering just as much as their students are. When the very people who are entrusted to educate us are afraid of triggering their students with (what seem to many as) benign works from America’s classical canon, like The Great Gatsby (a work that has been under scrutiny for its portrayal of class status, conspicuous consumption, and female objectification), we are risking the academic excellence that BC has cultivated for more than a century by forcing our professors to dull down our curriculums and conversations. We are prohibiting our professors from doing their jobs, we are placing academic discourse in vain, and we are damaging our own futures as well-prepared young adults, all because we are too scared to face the challenge of an idea.

To secure academic discourse, the student body must first recognize the issue at hand. For those who feel offended in an intellectual atmosphere, perhaps it is about time to face your fears rather than hide from them. Anyone who is at all familiar with the field of psychology knows well that in order to conquer distress or anxiety, the worst thing one can do is evade it. If we are to learn anything, we must tackle subjects from all sides, hear all arguments, and strive to understand perspectives that are different from one’s own. The only way to do this is to rid ourselves of safe spaces in the intellectual realm.

It is not that we must abandon empathy, respect, or even common courtesy. The task is not to harm our peers, but to encourage them. If a fellow student seems insulted by a comment or a text, it is our duty as scholars to engage them in dialogue, to listen to why they struggle, and to learn from them, so that they too may learn from us—in this way, we are creating intellectual discourse, as it should be.

Featured Image by Francisco Ruela / Heights Graphics