University Coddling And “Safe Spaces”

Ken AshfordEducationLeave a Comment

I keep reading about “safe spaces” showing up in our universities, and it strikes me as just bizarre.  As far as I can tell, a “safe space” is a designated space intended to give people who might find comments “troubling” or “triggering,” a place to recuperate. Safe spaces are an expression of the conviction, increasingly prevalent among college students, that their schools should keep them from being “bombarded” by discomfiting or distressing viewpoints. Think of the safe space as the live-action version of the better-known trigger warning, a notice put on top of a syllabus or an assigned reading to alert students to the presence of potentially disturbing material.

So, for example, a university might be sponsoring a debate on rape culture, and somewhere near the lecture hall, there would be a “safe space”.  The room would be equipped with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma. It is where you would go if you were feeling bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against your dearly and closely held beliefs.

That on its face seems like the right and compassionate thing to do.  But the criticism — one that I am beginning to understand — is that the “safe space” movement is getting out of hand, and used to stifle intellectual discourse.  It is one thing to create a safe space for those who are truly — TRULY — traumatized; it is another to create a safe space for people who just want to shut down debate.  And from what I read in these stories, every person who goes to college must be traumatized.  As such, a safe-space mentality has begun infiltrating classrooms, making both professors and students loath to say anything that might hurt someone’s feelings. Professors are encouraged to provide “trigger warnings,” and on some campuses report “microaggressions.”

And it begs the question: how can you have an intellectual space AND a therapeutic space co-exist?  Have our universities become just one big soft pillow, and how will this help students in the real world where “safe spaces” don’t exist?

Even President Obama has wondered if universities are too coddling:

“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 had language that is offensive to African Americans or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women,” Obama said Monday while speaking at a town hall meeting at North High School in Des Moines. “I’ve got to tell you, I don’t agree with that either — that you when you become students at colleges, you have to be coddled and protected from different points of view. Anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with them, but you shouldn’t silence them by saying you can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say.”

This issue came to a head yesterday at the University of Missouri.  In case you hadn’t heard the news, minority students lodged a series of protests against the university administration and its lackluster response to repeated incidents of racial prejudice and violence.  The students were clearly in the right, and when the football team threatened not to play future games, that’s when it really hit the fan.  The University’s president resigned — a huge victory.  The students held a rally but a photographer was prevented from taking pictures.  Why?  Because the students had created a “media safe space” so they wouldn’t be traumatized by the media.

And that’s when I hopped off the bandwagon.  Seriously?  “Traumatized by the media?”  First of all, you can’t take a public space, like an outdoor quad on a college campus, and just declare it off limits to certain people.  That’s called…. um…. segregation.  That word ring a bell?  Secondly, the notion that minority students are going to be “traumatized” by the presence of a photographer at a rally is silly.  Just silly.  Again, I am suggesting that the notion of a “safe space” is being used to stifle speech (or in the case, press), rather than for its intended “make safe” intent.

The ill effect of this is not only bad for those whose views are stifled…. it is also bad for students:

The dangers that these trends pose to scholarship and to the quality of American universities are significant; we could write a whole essay detailing them. But in this essay we focus on a different question: What are the effects of this new protectiveness on the students themselves? Does it benefit the people it is supposed to help? What exactly are students learning when they spend four years or more in a community that polices unintentional slights, places warning labels on works of classic literature, and in many other ways conveys the sense that words can be forms of violence that require strict control by campus authorities, who are expected to act as both protectors and prosecutors?

There’s a saying common in education circles: Don’t teach students what to think; teach them how to think. The idea goes back at least as far as Socrates. Today, what we call the Socratic method is a way of teaching that fosters critical thinking, in part by encouraging students to question their own unexamined beliefs, as well as the received wisdom of those around them. Such questioning sometimes leads to discomfort, and even to anger, on the way to understanding.

But vindictive protectiveness teaches students to think in a very different way. It prepares them poorly for professional life, which often demands intellectual engagement with people and ideas one might find uncongenial or wrong. The harm may be more immediate, too. A campus culture devoted to policing speech and punishing speakers is likely to engender patterns of thought that are surprisingly similar to those long identified by cognitive behavioral therapists as causes of depression and anxiety. The new protectiveness may be teaching students to think pathologically.


The point of universities is to expose yourself to a variety of opinions and beliefs.  You will receive wisdom from people who disagree with you — not necessarily because they will persuade you (although they might), but maybe because it will help you define and clarify what you truly believe.

Intellectual is open.  Safe spaces are not.