A British university has outdone its American counterparts in the ongoing effort at protecting students from disturbing ideas and speech by means of “safe spaces.”
Safe spaces usually come into high profile when controversial guest speakers are invited to appear on campuses. Students who feel they can’t take the sound of ideas dissimilar to their own or who are not willing to hector the speaker with boos and catcalls are invited to retreat to specially designated rooms, where they are surrounded by comforting décor and soft music.
But in this case, university faculty themselves were warned about the damage that seemingly ordinary language can do.
This week it was reported that journalism professors at Leeds Trinity University in the U.K. have been instructed not to use certain words, lest they frighten sensitive students.
The do’s and don’ts of the administration advisory included such words as — “do” and “don’t.” The memo advised: “Generally, avoid using capital letters for emphasis and the overuse of ‘do’, and, especially, ‘DON’T.’”
What inflammatory content could be contained in these words that might upset students?
In an internal staff memo obtained by the Daily Express, staff are told that students’ “anxiety” can lead to academic failure, and that these unequivocal negatives and positives can raise anxiety levels to such a degree as to put the student population at risk of academic dysfunction.
The do’s-and-don’ts directive puts a crimp in the ability of teachers to teach, since an integral part of teaching is informing students about what should or should not be included in discussing a certain topic — not to mention such banal admonitions as “do” arrive for class on time, or “don’t” chew gum in class.
It is hard to imagine normal young people who are so fragile as to be threatened by the common imperatives of English, and what traumas upper-case letters could hold for them. But unless the university administration tragically underestimates its undergraduates, such is the case, and we must acknowledge the unhappy fact that this generation is a bundle of jitters that must be handled with utmost care and parental — if not clinical — concern.
Even if the British item is an outlier, the existence of safe spaces on campus is a widespread phenomenon both in the U.K. and the U.S.
Critics of the safe-space trend within academia argue that it could stifle diversity of viewpoints and leave graduates unprepared for situations in the real world where such special protection won’t be available.
Proponents of safe spaces argue back that they provide a supportive environment to speak out and share feelings, especially for minority students, who would otherwise remain silent in the face of racism and other oppressive realities. Ultimately, they claim, safe spaces will help them find the courage to cope with those realities both on campus and, later, in the real world.
It should be noted that support groups in the form of like-minded friends and roommates and student clubs have always existed. Those who are afraid to speak out in public or to confront discrimination are certainly not without someone to turn to.
Educational facilities should be a safe space for ideas, not for delicate souls who are afraid of ideas. A university should be, and has traditionally been, a place where young people can freely examine their own prior assumptions, expose themselves to different viewpoints and learn to think critically and independently. Not a place to hide away from intellectual challenge.
Ironically, the safe-space idea appears to go hand-in-hand with an old idea that is completely out of the realm of political correctness: segregation. Segregation imposed from the outside, by dominant groups, is still anathema. But the impulse toward segregated living on campus has been taking the form of self-segregation.
As Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro observed, it is understandable that black students eating in the cafeteria would not want white undergraduates to join them. “We all deserve safe spaces,” he wrote, and “black students had every right to enjoy their lunches in peace.”
For years, diversity has been promoted by liberal administrators as a worthy goal of education: that a racially and otherwise diverse campus enhances the academic experience. Not affirmative action or the use of racial quotas for correcting inequality for its own sake, but as an academic value that should be taken into consideration in the evaluation of applications for admission.
Besides the fact that, as Irving Kristol once pointed out, there is no evidence whatsoever that diversity has any positive impact on education, now we are aware of the irony of it in practice. With all the talk about diversity, when it comes to sitting down at the campus lunch counter, some folks (not all) would rather sit with people like themselves.
The safe-space mentality underscores how great a difference there often is between ideal and practice, between rhetoric and behavior. After all, the ability to identify inconsistency and illogic — and to spot hypocrisy — is a valuable tool in life, both on campus and off.