All Commentary
Wednesday, November 25, 2015

How Much Learning Can Occur in Safe Spaces?

Real Education Can Be Risky

At Oxford, a debate about whether “abortion culture harms us all” was canceled due to student protest. A performance of The Vagina Monologues met with the same fate at Mount Holyoke College because it excludes, and thus might offend, trans women. At Brown University, a group of students organized a “safe space” so that students who found a scheduled debate about how universities should handle sexual assault too upsetting had somewhere to go. One student who availed herself of the safe space suggested that she felt “bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against my dearly and closely held beliefs,” and so she had to leave the debate.

Safe spaces are places where you can only learn safe things.

Most recently, there have been (and are, as of this writing) protests at the University of Missouri over alleged racism directed at black students on campus, culminating — at least for now — in a strike by the football team and the resignation of the both the university president and chancellor for doing too little to combat racism and promote inclusion.

While creating a safe and inclusive campus climate can be important, so-called safe spaces are often the places where the least amount of actual dialogue and learning take place.

Take a recent comment made by the University of Missouri’s Student Body Vice President Brenda Smith-Lazema. When asked if she thinks universities like hers are becoming places of censorship and prohibition, she said,

I personally am tired of hearing that First Amendment rights protect students when they are creating a hostile and unsafe learning environment for myself and for other students here. I think that it’s important for us to create that distinction and create a space where we can all learn from one another.

But how compatible are safe spaces with learning? To put it bluntly, safe spaces are places where you can only learn safe things. The more people are worried about offending others, the fewer subjects are available for safe discussion. So, while you can learn in safe spaces, what you can learn will be limited to subjects that have no real potential to offend anyone. And if understanding of others is the goal — appreciating diversity of race, religion, sexuality, and gender — then safe spaces will put out of bounds the very subjects that may be necessary to promote a more inclusive environment.

Let’s look, for example, at microaggressions. Microaggressions are small verbal or other minor acts of discrimination, intentional or not: someone asks an Asian person where he’s “really” from; another asks to touch a black woman’s hair before even knowing her name. I won’t join in the chorus belittling the idea of microaggressions; I am sure it does weigh heavily on the black student whose friends always tell her they don’t really think of her as black or the gay student who hears “gay jokes” on a regular basis.

My point is that the more we call things like these microaggressions, the more we inadvertently discourage actual conversations about these issues. Let’s think about a young man who knows very little about transgender issues. He may not even know whether the best term to use is transgender, transsexual, transvestite, or something else; or he may have questions he doesn’t know how to ask without offending transgender people. The more we give him the message that using the wrong term or asking strange questions is a “little aggression,” the more we teach him (and others) to stay away from the topic of transgender people altogether. It seems like that is precisely what we shouldn’t want to do if the goal is to get people learning from each other in open dialogue.

But the problem is that open dialogue will often create offenses — especially about sensitive topics, which are often the best topics to create learning experiences. One person may strongly believe that the Bible condemns homosexuality, while another passionately believes that the Bible should not be seen as an authority on the subject of sexuality.

If we want to create a safe space where people are not at risk of being offended, maybe deeply so, the learning experience stops. Conversely, if we want to create a situation where we can have open dialogue about this potentially sensitive topic, where people can learn about and from others, all parties must be ready to be offended.

MTV sponsored a study of millennials in 2014 (PDF), and the results support this point. As this study and others have confirmed, millennials are probably the most diverse and socially tolerant generation in human history.

As a professor who teaches about diversity issues, I notice one statistic in particular: While 73 percent “think we should talk more openly about bias,” and the same number “believe having more open constructive conversations … would help people become less prejudiced,” only 20 percent of those surveyed say they are comfortable having such conversations.

Millennials want to talk about diversity issues, but few feel comfortable doing so. I am not sure what causes the reluctance, but it isn’t a stretch to think that being in climates that value safe spaces and not offending others has something to do with it. The more concerned one is not to offend others — even unintentionally — the fewer subjects one will be comfortable talking about, and diversity issues will almost certainly be off the table.

So when Brenda Smith-Lazema suggests that “it’s important for us to … create a space where we can all learn from one another,” her sentiment is laudable. Good discussion does need to be respectful in order to be productive. Conversations that end in name calling and impassioned outbursts are unproductive; good learning environments need to keep discussions civil and rule-bound. But I’m afraid that the quest of Smith-Lazema and others to have safe spaces that are also learning environments is unrealistic, perhaps even impossible.

People should have safe spaces. Students should have environments where they can learn from each other. But there is good reason to believe that no location can be both at once.