The needed convergence of sensitivity and education


By Carly Charles

It seems to be common sense that when contributing to online social media forums — Facebook, for example — if you have something controversial to say, it’s best not to say it at all.

Posting a “challenging” comment on a link or page will result in an overwhelming assortment of replies, many pointing fingers at “insensitivity” or “political incorrectness.”

It’s one thing to be shut down on the Internet; it’s quite another to be silenced and denounced on a University campus, where the supposed overarching goal is to become more intellectually educated and more immersed in different and challenging concepts and points of view.

Generations ago, the idea that one could simply avoid reading “Macbeth” on the grounds that the play’s depictions of violence garnered a negative, traumatic response from students might have been unheard of. Now, it’s not so unusual.

The increasingly prominent idea that the college experience — both socially and academically — must be a “safe space” for students takes a well-intended philosophy and places it where it doesn’t belong — into the world of intellectual curiosity and development.

According to Judith Shulevitz in her New York Times article, “In College and Hiding from Scary Ideas,” “safe spaces” are, in most cases, “innocuous gatherings of like-minded people who agree to refrain from ridicule, criticism or what they term microaggressions.”

As an option, the safe space and the sort of thinking it promotes is a very positive thing. In the stressful world of exams, expanding social circles and the transition into independent living that is higher education, it is comforting as a student to know that there is a safe haven one can go to obtain a kind, listening ear and a shoulder to lean on in times of mental and emotional crisis.

The problem is these safe spaces are now bleeding into the overarching academic atmosphere — an area in which they really ought not go. In the news alone, you hear stories of college speakers who present challenging ideas to students being heavily protested, and students being “banned” from discussions for offering controversial viewpoints.

Making safe spaces and academic spaces one and the same is damaging to the college learning experience. Automatically labeling any situation or school of thought that does not comply with one’s personal and moral beliefs as “unsafe” inhibits students from gaining knowledge and perspective. By avoiding tense or uncomfortable situations altogether, students severely compromise their ability to manage life outside — as Shulevitz refers to it — the “controlled climate” that is the college campus.

The idea that discomfort or a differing, unfamiliar opinion is synonymous with “inappropriate” and “unsafe” is dangerous and inherently threatening to the collegiate young adult. The rhetoric that any form of mental discomfort ought to be simply avoided in order to perpetuate an emotionally coddled mind is, frankly, juvenile. It breeds a student body incapable of considering ideas that are morally and intellectually different than their own in an objective way.

One of the most important lessons I have learned thus far is that learning to interact with and understand people who act and think very differently than oneself is a valuable and essential skill to acquire. It troubles me that students fresh out of the collegiate bubble won’t know how to grapple with the harsh and often illogical world, oftentimes because they are sheltered from it — I know I still struggle with it even after trying to branch out.

Judith Shapiro, former president of Barnard College, writes in an essay for Inside Higher Ed, that, “there are a variety of policies and practices that give students what most of them seem to want, but not necessarily what they most need.”

Referring to the contemporary “trigger warning movement,” Shapiro writes of the growing tendency for college faculty to not only warn students in advance of materials that may include “upsetting” content, but to allow the students to avoid the “triggering” materials altogether.

Such acts, Shapiro says, are “an insult to the intelligence and good sense of students.” I agree fully with this statement. The University that my classmates and I attend is world renowned for its educational facilities and its highly intelligent and curious academics. This being said, even undergraduate students, surely, should be able to handle the personal discomfort that comes along with exposure to challenging and new materials and concepts.

No student should have to attend classes feeling threatened and in harms way — this goes without saying. But creating a rhetoric wherein feelings of tension are equitable with a threat to physical, moral harm is simply unacceptable and in itself threatening to the student’s mental and intellectual well-being.

Building a college world in which “safe” environments tread heavily into the academic realm is dangerous and inhibits students from engaging in the growing up and educational processes they so desperately need.

Carly is a senior in FAA.

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