Recently Lena Dunham’s alma matter, Oberlin College, published a guide for its professors on how to correctly use trigger warnings while teaching so that none of their students would be offended. The goal was to make the classroom a “safe space” for learning.
The guide was created by the school’s administrators, people who are invested in student’s happiness and satisfaction with their experience, not the quality of their education or whether they are learning to think. Oberlin’s professors were surprised (and unhappy) about the school’s idea that critical thinking and dialogue could ever exist in such a sanitized environment.
In the faculty’s eyes, trigger warnings threaten not just academic freedom but the intrinsic nature of the liberal arts educational model. “We need to … challenge students, to conduct open inquiry in classrooms, to make students feel uncomfortable,” explained [Oberlin Political Science professor] Blecher. “Making students feel uncomfortable is at the core of liberal arts education.
If you want to feel “safe,” you do not value learning, it’s as simple as that. This is like asking an athlete to train for the Olympics without going through the pain and discomfort of exercising.
But it’s a movement that’s growing — calls to take down offensive posts and moderate comments (or delete comments sections entirely). Creating safe spaces, or taking actions with the only goal of making people less comfortable is doing them (and everyone else) a disservice. A safe space is, essentially, somewhere where you will run into zero stimuli. It is a synthetic environment where the only interaction you have is with people who agree with everything you say, it’s a request to be surrounded by yes men, essentially.
I don’t agree with the concept of creating “safe” space because in doing so you necessarily create a space where no growth can take place. If there is no stimulus to provoke change, there will not be any change. There will be no learning, no teaching, no conversation. I don’t think anyone’s goal should be encouraging people to stick their head in the sand and plant their feet firmly and wait it out until they die.
What about people who are bullied? Shouldn’t they have a safe space to not be bullied?
Well… I’m not sure. Safe spaces are a big, fat road to nowhere, I can’t, in good faith, recommend a dead end to anyone. If we’re creating safe spaces for the sake of the emotional health of a person being attacked, we might do well to remember that sheltering someone doesn’t create growth towards health — adversity does. If that’s the case, sheltering someone is harmful rather than helpful. What if our parents never let us walk because they wanted us to be safe — to protect us against a fall?
Oberlin made the mistake of prioritizing short-term user experience over the higher, long-term goal of mental and emotional growth. Let’s learn from their mistake and stop with the idea that creating “safe space” is in any way helpful.