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A Flawed Defense of Safe Spaces in the New York Times

In a recent New York Times op-ed, Wesleyan University president Michael S. Roth offers a defense of “safe enough” spaces on our college and university campuses. Roth seeks to establish a middle ground between proponents who aspire “to make sure all students are made to feel welcome in or outside the classroom” and critics who see safe spaces as “sanctimonious ‘safetyism’—counterproductive coddling of students who feel fragile.” So, he asks, “what’s a university to do?”

“We should begin,” writes Roth in answer to his own question, “by destigmatizing the notion of safe spaces and stop talking about them as if they were part of a zero-sum ideological war.” He provides historic examples of space spaces for employees and managers in post-World War II manufacturing, group therapy in psychiatry, and later feminist and gay liberation community building. None of this was controversial, he suggests.

But Roth’s examples are not really on point if the risk of safe spaces perceived by their critics, as Roth puts it, is of “groups…enclosing themselves in bubbles that protect them from competing points of view.” The creation of opportunities for open discussion between employees and managers, or for sharing of experiences among mental health patients, serves to burst bubbles, not insulate participants from other points of view. The building of community among feminists and gays may have reinforced narrow perspectives but their purpose was political, not educational. Safe spaces that encourage cooperation or facilitate political action are far different from safe spaces that insulate from discomfort.

Colleges and universities exist, first and foremost, to educate their students, not to consolidate shared interests, facilitate advocacy, or mask intellectual and emotional disagreements. Certainly those with common interests and shared experiences should be free to associate among themselves in clubs, advocacy groups, and private gatherings. And there is nothing wrong with colleges encouraging and facilitating such confabs as part of the life of the university, not to mention the right to freedom of association.

Roth also recounts historic threats to the physical safety of women and minorities by way of underscoring colleges’ responsibilities as parens patriae. Surely no one doubts that colleges and universities are entrusted with the physical and psychological welfare of their students, particularly undergraduates. But threats of physical and psychological harm bear little resemblance to the harms college safe spaces are intended to protect against. The former are obstacles to education (and usually illegal). The latter are essential to education. As Roth acknowledges, “our classrooms should never be so comfortable that intellectual confrontation becomes taboo or assumptions go unchallenged because everyone’s emotional well-being is overprotected.”

There is a difference between true psychological harm and hurt feelings. Perhaps Roth’s “safe enough” standard is meant to recognize that difference, but the reality on many campuses is that safe spaces encourage, in Roth’s words, the “siloing of perspectives” against which “[u]niversities must push back.”

There is also an important difference between student-organized clubs for people of shared interests or experiences and college safe spaces created for the express purpose of insulating students from discomfort. The former are invitations to collegiality. The latter are obstacles to the development of a true intellectual community….[ ]

What do you think?

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Posted by Buccaneer

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