ON ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND “SAFE SPACES”

I’m back again, finally.

alumni_hall_1889_sunLabor Day has come and gone, and that means that pretty much every college and university in America is back in session after the summer’s hiatus.  The summer break meant, among other things, a break from debates about academic freedom in higher education and whether too many institutions are coddling their students and shielding them from grown-up conversations instead of preparing them to think deeply about a complicated world.  But with classes back in session and young minds once again seeking light where there is darkness, we can expect the debate about safe spaces and target warnings and the limits of academic freedom to warm up again soon.

From the heart of the Ivy League, Brown University President Christina Paxson used her holiday weekend to mount a preemptive strike against those who would question whether the Academy has lost its way.  In her Labor Day Washington Post editorial, Paxson made two emphatic points.  First, academic freedom “protects the ability of universities to fulfill their core mission of advancing knowledge,” which is precisely why institutions like Brown “absolutely protect the rights of members of their communities to express a full range of ideas, however controversial.”

Second, the creation of “safe spaces” is absolutely consistent with academic freedom, and “Yes, Brown has them.  Proudly.”  As Paxson defines them, “safe spaces” are places where “marginalized groups can come together to feel comfortable discussing their experiences and just being themselves.”  As examples of “marginalized groups,” Paxson mentions women, members of the LGBTQ community, and ethnic minorities.

Paxton fails to mention that often what makes a space “safe” is students’ confidence that certain values and beliefs will not be challenged or questioned there, which is another way of saying that certain intellectual positions are prohibited.  Nor does she acknowledge that “safe spaces” aren’t limited solely to extracurricular student activities or the meeting rooms for student organizations.  On many campuses there are calls from both students and an increasing number of faculty to make academic classrooms into “safe spaces” as well.  When this happens, as Paxson well knows, the ideal of academic freedom and the goal of the “safe space” run head on into one another.

The solution, which Paxson hints at ever so obliquely, is to sacrifice the former in the interest of the latter.  “With the right of academic freedom comes the moral responsibility to think carefully about how that right is exercised in the service of society,” she writes.  Because the university’s job is to help “create peaceful, just and prosperous societies,” it must be especially careful not to exacerbate the already “fractured . . . lines of race, ethnicity, income and ideology.”

Two quick reactions:  First, although I applaud Paxson’s reminder that freedom comes with responsibility, I wish she had been more forthright and simply conceded that there are situations at her institution when other priorities trump academic freedom.  She might then have spelled out the moral and political values that her university holds as superior to academic freedom per se.  But she did not, holding to the official line that academic freedom at Brown is unfettered and that no hard trade-offs are required.  Everyone can feel “safe” as long as academic freedom is exercised “responsibly.”

As I have written before, if “academic freedom” means the liberty publicly to explore, espouse, and promote any conceivable value or set of values in an academic context, “however controversial,” then it has never existed at Brown or anywhere else.  Our ideals are defined as much by what we consider beyond the pale as by what we hold up as ideal.  As a result, neither secular nor Christian institutions exalt unfettered academic freedom as their highest good or as an end in itself. This is because both claim to serve something larger, whether they speak in terms of “the public good” or of “Christ and His Kingdom” (goals that are hardly mutually exclusive, by the way).  In pursuit of these greater goods, both Christian and secular schools establish boundaries within which they expect their faculty to operate.  I wish that Paxson could just admit this.

Second, as an educator, I am struck by the limitations of the metaphor of the “safe space.”  I want my students to feel both affirmed and challenged, and I doubt that truly transformative education is possible when either is lacking.  Without mounting an extended argument, I’ll just share my view that the Christian conception of hospitality might serve as a much more satisfying metaphor.  I’ll leave you with an extended quotation from Reaching Out, by Henri Nouwen, the 20th-century Dutch catholic priest and scholar:

Hospitality . . . means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy.  Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place.  It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines. . . . It is not an educated intimidation with good books, good stories and good works, but the liberation of fearful hearts so that words can find roots and bear ample fruit.

6 responses to “ON ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND “SAFE SPACES”

  1. Pingback: On academic freedom and “safe spaces” _ faith and history brown university united states

  2. The idea of safe spaces can be troubling if that means that freedom of speech, inquiry and civil disagreement are prohibited or limited on a campus so that no one feels uncomfortable. However, I also believe that a trigger warning might be a good idea if there was a particularly brutal description of the beating of a slave or disturbing pictures of slaughtered individuals. This would not prohibit me from engaging with “so call disturbing” materials but one friend of mine returned to college after serving in Vietnam with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and in his case a trigger warning might have been helpful depending on the subject matter. I myself, as a retired Professor of Business, try to read something daily with which I disagree in order to challenge the confirmation bias that exists within the friendship, political and religious communities which I frequent. Second, we must remember that there is actual ontological truth which we must seek even if our limited minds cannot always comprehend the totality of that truth. All Christians, prayerfully, should seek the truth of Christ in all situations.

  3. Thank you. Pondering.

  4. Pingback: That Was The Week That Was – The Pietist Schoolman

  5. Pingback: Safe spaces for what? | exhortatio

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