Modern Universities Have Always Had Safe Spaces


…Academic freedom is the core meaning, the core institutional life, of freedom of debate and freedom of inquiry in the university setting. And one thing that’s notable about academic freedom as I’ve just labeled it is that it creates safe spaces. The people who are doing the work on an ongoing basis be they students, teachers, or researchers, don’t have to spend all day every day answering the challenge: “where are your experiments?”. That get’s boring and is unproductive. If I as a political scientist want to do some research, if I want to make some intellectual progress, I have to not be constantly harangued by the biologists or the chemists saying: “It’s not a real science you know”. By the third time, there is nothing new to learn, it’s going to get in the way of our ability to do what we are doing. The same by the way is true of the metaphysic[ian] in a philosophy department who says to the physicist: “Well you know that your assumptions about the nature of reality are really up for contestation.” It’s really hard to argue with and the physicist replies: “Get out of my way, I’m trying to get some work done!”

What is that? That’s a way of separating out universities into partially separate communities in which different lines of inquiry, different kinds of work can be done among people who share certain assumptions in common. That does not mean that any of those communities are internally spaces without debate. Every good classroom, every good department, every good discipline, is a space where debate happens. We get together and argue about the new high level stuff that we are trying to understand. We ask each other hard philosophy questions, hard political science questions, hard chemistry questions, but they’re hard as understood within the context of that intellectual community. Those safe space moments are most of our day, but they aren’t all of it.

There is value in having moments of interdisciplinary challenge and good universities do try and create settings in which that kind of thing can happen. And sometimes, whole disciplines can be really shaken up from the outside…. But that still can’t be, no matter how valuable it is, the normal business most of the time. The normal business most of the time has to be “we, doing this kind of work, according to these norms, and we evaluate each other according to these norms.” The philosophy professor evaluates the philosophy student as to whether the paper is a good philosophy paper. The philosophy department evaluates the philosophy job candidate as to whether they would be a good philosophy professor. And the philosophy department evaluates the current philosophers as to whether they are still doing that and acting as good philosophers. The moments of challenge have to be the exception; the safe spaces are the rule.

Why do we need safe spaces? We need safe spaces for a few different reasons. One of them is intellectual. Inquiry is hard. Research, teaching, and learning, require building blocks. And if you are never allowed to put one set of blocks down, you will never be able to move on to the next level…

Another reason is that that kind of thing is psychologically and emotionally draining. Adults commenting on university students from off-campus will often say “there is a real problem with students not understanding that their ideas should be up for challenge all of the time.” But nobody who lives off of a university campus lives that way. We go home at the end of the day. It’s not just that I walk out of my meeting with the biologist and don’t let the biologist follow me and say “it’s not a real science”. It’s not just that when I go back to the political science department I don’t have my quantitative political science colleagues harassing me and asking “where are the hypotheses?” It’s not just that among my political theory colleagues I don’t let them harass me all day saying “what you’re doing is kind of a strange mix of normative and empirical inquiry, where is the philosophy?” I hear all of those questions at different times in my intellectual life, but at some point I go home. You can’t do that all day every day, not if you take those challenges seriously or not if people get in your face beyond some minimal level…

The above is an excerpt from a transcript of a lecture by Jacob Levy (McGill). The lecture continues with Levy showing how most of the demands for “safe spaces” by students that have been in the news recently are of a piece with the justification for safe spaces for professors, described above, that we all generally accept. His approach to the topic, couched in a discussion of the kind of association a university is, also provides a way of understanding when demands for safe spaces go too far.

Read the whole thing. It’s long, but it’s good.

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Cinerama by Sarah Morris

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Carl Brownson
Carl Brownson
5 years ago

Most of the philosophers I know are in the philosophy department precisely trying to make it less safe. God bless them.Report

Carl Brownson
Carl Brownson
5 years ago

It’s a cute analogy, but departments and safe spaces don’t really function in the same way. We may ignore people from other departments, but we don’t keep them out. And within any given department, criticism is everywhere. I don’t see it.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Carl Brownson
5 years ago

I think the basic point that we all need some respite from critique is fair enough. We really couldn’t do any work in academia without some haven from questioning. Having said that, the analogy with academia is very unfortunate, because we in academia discuss and debate across disciplines far too little. Heck, its almost a miracle if analytics and continentals within the discipline debate the issues with one another. We have way, way too much safe space in philosophy where there should be healthy, respectful critique and vigorous polite disagreement.Report

JPM
JPM
5 years ago

Is he talking about the same thing (as has been in the news for the past year or so)? This is pretty confusing.Report

Urstoff
Urstoff
5 years ago

Safe spaces are routinely set up when a speaker comes to campus that is ideologically distasteful. Note that attending the speaker’s lecture is voluntary. There is no analogy to academic departments here. The speaker and its attendees are not disrupting those who disagree in their dorm rooms, library, cafeteria, etc. Those students’ ideas would only be challenged if they decided to attend the lecture (which many of them do, and then disrupt it with various kinds of protests rather than engaging in rational discourse).Report

JPM
JPM
Reply to  Urstoff
5 years ago

What’s somewhat ironic is that the people who are demanding safe spaces (in the sense of spaces where no disagreement can or should occur–and no, that’s not a strawman), are often the people who are creating unsafe–and often somewhat violent–spaces on campuses. Yale. And now SFSU. Dialogue that demands dialogue but censures to the point of silence……is no dialogue!Report

JT
JT
Reply to  JPM
5 years ago

No, JPM, that looks like a textbook strawman to me. But I guess things look a lot clearer to you from the back of that mighty high horse you cantered in on. Though, for what it’s worth, if you have a hard time hearing what those of us down in the muck have to say properly, it’s probably because the rarified air up where you are is too thin for the sound of our voices to carry very high. So, you’ll have to excuse our shouting–we just want to be heard and it seems that they don’t have any horses left for us to trot around on.Report

JPM
JPM
Reply to  JT
5 years ago

I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to figure out JT’s wonderful example of several logical fallacies…..all rolled up into a nice, singular, useful, classroom-ready, ball!Report

Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa
Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa
Reply to  Urstoff
5 years ago

“Safe spaces are routinely set up when a speaker comes to campus that is ideologically distasteful.”

I have seen this asserted before—but exclusively by handwringers about Today’s Coddled Youths. Is it true? What are these kinds of safe spaces like? Having consulted with some friends and colleagues who also have never seen any such things, I’m starting to think this sort of thing is just a big myth.

I’m familiar with particular offices or environments that are designated safe spaces, where, for instance, people are invited to discuss sexual assaults without fear of judgment or attack, and maybe women’s-only lounges in dedicated locations. But I kinda think this kind kind of portable fainting couch zone is pure reactionary fantasy. It’s hard to prove a negative, but I’ve never seen such a thing—frequent assertions about what is ‘routine’ notwithstanding.Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
5 years ago

I like what President Obama said about safe spaces: “I’ve heard of some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative or they don’t want to read a book if it has language that is offensive to African-Americans or somehow sends a demeaning signal toward women. I’ve got to tell you, I don’t agree with that, either. I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view.”Report

Clement Loo
Clement Loo
5 years ago

It strikes me that several of the commenters above are not really addressing Levy’s argument and are, instead, addressing a stronger claim.

Levy doesn’t seem to be arguing that students should be free from challenge or free from being ever asked to examine their positions or assumptions. He seems only to be suggesting that students shouldn’t be constantly expected to justify themselves to those who do not share their projects or interests. Indeed, Levy explicitly states that within communities there should be routine challenge and questioning of assumptions, moreover Levy suggests that there are instances where external challenge is legitimate and, perhaps even, encouraged and valuable.

That seems to me to be a fairly reasonable and modest proposal that is perhaps a good way to frame the notion of safe spaces.

Safe spaces shouldn’t be understood as inviolable spaces where one is never challenged. Instead, safe spaces should be understood as spaces where people aren’t challenged for its own sake but, rather, are challenged when and if such challenge might actually help them to achieve their ends or better reflect upon the issues that they are concerned with.Report

Urstoff
Urstoff
Reply to  Clement Loo
5 years ago

Under such a definition, most universities are 99.5% safe spaces already, and I don’t think most people object to such a definition. Not challenging people on their beliefs constantly is part of living in civil society.

That innocuous definition, however, does not seem to be the one used by university students that set up safe spaces. Levy can advocate for his definition all he wants, but then he’s not really talking about what everyone else is talking about when it comes to safe spaces.Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
Reply to  Clement Loo
5 years ago

“Instead, safe spaces should be understood as spaces where people … are challenged when and if such challenge might actually help them to achieve their ends or better reflect upon the issues that they are concerned with.”

That doesn’t sound innocuous to me. Liberal education is surely not about “achieving my ends” or “reflecting on issues I am concerned about.” Rather, it is about discovering what ends are laudable (environmentalism? poverty reduction?) and reflecting on issues of importance to people in general, not just my club or myself. Your notion of a safe space should apply to vocational classes, but not to classes like ethics or history or economics. In these classes, it is absolutely necessary that vigorous defenses be given to positions that may cause other people to experience offense. My goal as an instructor is to make sure that students make such defenses gently and sensitively — but certainly not to silence them.Report

JT
JT
Reply to  Arthur Greeves
5 years ago

Surely one of your other goals as an instructor is also to not waste valuable class time on discussions of little (or negative) pedagogical value. There are an infinite number of possible positions in logical space and most of these are wildly implausible or uninteresting; some are furthermore demeaning or harmful when taken seriously. Given that discussion time is finite, boundaries will have to be set and certain positions will have to be excluded. I take it that part of the instructor’s job is to make sure that as little time as possible is spent on views that are both implausible/uninteresting and demeaning/harmful. For instance, a good instructor would not spend any more class time on an antisemitic claim premised on blood libel than it takes to dismiss it as inappropriate and ridiculous. I don’t see why the case is any different when it comes to other demeaning claims premised on similarly implausible myths (e.g., those about members of the LGBTQ community, the prevalence of false rape allegations by vindictive women, the relative intelligence/work ethic of certain racial minorities, etc.).Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
Reply to  JT
5 years ago

We’re talking about students here, JT. And yet your suggestion is that we dismiss their ideas and proposals as “ridiculous”. I find that antithetical to the very notion of education. If my student is seriously wrongheaded about something, calling their view ridiculous is exactly what I should NOT do. Such an action validates them in rejecting everything I have to say. It drives a wedge between the student and the truth.

Certainly there are times when I think topics should be sidelined, for the sake of learning course material. And in passing, I might state my opinion on the topic — indeed, I might state how I feel some students would probably feel justifiably offended because of something the first student said. But I would always — perhaps with trained naivete — express that I was sure these slights were unintentional, and I would never make the student’s idea appear any more ridiculous than they themselves made it appear. (Sometimes that can be QUITE ridiculous, I admit.) This is a balancing act, of course, and I want to be very careful to validate students who might be offended.

I can imagine cases where students said such outrageous things that they must be stood against, clearly and unambiguously. But I don’t think such things are often said in our classes, since students are usually not complete fools. And if you think about it, philosophers themselves often say things that are quite outrageous — for instance, that three year olds could be morally killed for the benefit of their parents’ welfare. When such things are not “beyond the pale”, it seems pretty clear that “the pale” is pretty expansive.Report

Clement Loo
Clement Loo
Reply to  Arthur Greeves
5 years ago

Arthur,
I think the arguments being made, at least within this conversation, have implicit assumptions about the scope of courses and conversations.

I’m not arguing that there are topics that should never be discussed because they are distressing and could never be legitimate. Instead, I’m intending to argue that in any given exchange some statements can both be challenging and fail to contribute to the edification of any of the interlocutors. It seems legitimate to me in those cases for someone to be chastised for making such a statement. Since they’re needlessly distressing. If someone says something distressing but actually contributes to the better thinking regarding the topic of that conversation, that would be perfectly fine.

I also take Levy to be making that more narrow argument, which might not be consistent with what is commonly referred to as “safe spaces.” However, I’m not sure Levy is arguing in favor of the standardly called for “safe spaces.” Rather, I take him (though I may be wrong, I’m not all that familiar with Levy’s position) to be making an argument about how he thinks safe spaces should be conceptualized.Report

JT
JT
Reply to  Arthur Greeves
5 years ago

I didn’t mean to suggest that instructors should dismiss wrongheaded proposals across the board nor that they should not avoid alienating students in their manner of instruction. I intended my example (antisemitic blood libel) to be of a case that falls among the class of what you refer to as “such outrageous things that they must be stood against, clearly and unambiguously,” and I think we are in agreement that when instructors must take such a stance they should do so without driving “a wedge between the student and the truth.” My point is that many (though, of course, not all) of the things that safe space advocates demand be excluded from the classroom (and campuses more generally) are also members of this class. In this light, their demands are not so unreasonable, even if these require that we (gently and respectfully) silence others when they make certain claims, since that is something we already and justifiably do in the case of other outrageous claims. Also, to clarify, my claim is not that we are justified in doing so simply because these are beyond the pale, but rather, it is that we are justified in this because it is not a good use of class time to discuss such things at any significant length.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
5 years ago

Student opinions are almost always woefully simplistic, biased and uninformed. Not to discuss foolish theories is not to discuss most of what they believe. Yet they need to learn to critique what they believe.Report

Led
Led
5 years ago

The analogy has some serious obstacles to it. For one, disciplinary boundaries and bracketing of certain objections, etc. are part of a larger conception of disciplinary standards, and a still broader conception of academic research as a profession, that doesn’t have much in common with the conglomeration of theories that apparently motivate the movement for “safe spaces” in the sense much discussed of late. But even if the analogy holds, it is surely still damaging to overextend the notion of “safety” until it has no actual content other than its function as an all-purpose defeater for objections.Report