Intellectually Safe Space


What is an “intellectually safe space”? In “What Does Intellectual Safety Really Mean?” Katelyn Hallman (North Florida) notes:

An intellectually safe environment, as typically construed, is something like an environment “in which a person feels comfortable sharing ideas and opinions without fear of harsh judgment or repercussions.” This conception of intellectual safety focuses on being open-minded, tolerant and not judging others. An intellectually safe space like this would look like this:

Person 1: “I’m against same sex marriage.”
Person 2: “Why?”
Person 1: “Because of x, y, and z in the Bible.”
Person 2: “Oh okay. I’m not going to judge you and I guess I can tolerate that.”

She adds: “Something seems a little off here.” Were a critical conversation to follow, it may be that one of the interlocutors feels “personally attacked and harshly judged,” but it is a mistake to construe such a conversation as “unsafe.”

She writes:

Our typical way of thinking about intellectual safety is wrong. We need people to harshly judge us; we need people to think our views are BS and completely wacky; we need people brave enough to tell us that our views are insane and entirely wrong. But feeling attacked and disliked because someone disagrees with you is a problem and produces intellectually unsafe space.

Still, an intellectually safe space is not one in which anything goes:

To produce intellectually safe spaces we need to build an environment based on trust, not tolerance. Tolerance breeds unquestioned acceptance of (potentially) stupid beliefs; whereas trust breeds the ability to question beliefs in a way that aims at finding the answers. If you don’t trust the person criticizing you, you’re going to feel attacked and intellectually unsafe.

I think lack of trust and understanding is what underlies a lot of the current controversy regarding the teaching of potentially offensive or disturbing material. As I’ve said before, I have found that I can discuss almost any topic with students provided that I show them respect as a person and take their concerns seriously.

Good for Hallman—an undergraduate, by the way—for clarifying an important element of what both professors and students want in the college classroom.

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