In the past few weeks, the pendulum swing of political correctness–a movement that began decades ago as a backlash against entrenched prejudice and general power-hogging–seems to have achieved a sort of terminal velocity on American university campuses. This has resulted in events that many find dismaying, but not terribly surprising. I’m referring specifically to two well-known incidents that have already been heavily commented upon: the fight over Halloween costumes at Yale, in which a professor named Erika Christakis was pilloried for suggesting that students should be encouraged to use their own best judgment about what kinds of costumes are offensive, and the protests at the University of Missouri, during which a communications professor encouraged students to deny media access to their safe space–and to the very event that was designed to draw attention to their cause.
On both campuses, the idea of a “safe space” for students is generating the most discussion. It’s an idea that intrigues me, if only because it would never have survived a moment at my alma mater, St. John’s College.
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St. John’s is a Great Books school, and it’s a curious mixture of a Very Safe Space and a completely un-“safe space”. It was a Very Safe Space in the sense that you could explore, out loud and in great depth, pretty much any idea you could think of, in one of the two-hour philosophy seminars on seminal works of Western Civilization that are held each week, or in any of the required tutorials in language, mathematics, the sciences, art, and music. It is an environment totally dedicated to nurturing intellectual curiosity, problem-solving, and general growth. I had never before, and have never since, encountered so many brilliant people in one place. Because it is a Liberal Arts college in the truest sense of the phrase, we all had to take every course on the syllabus, in every subject. And because our sources were not textbooks, but original sources–think Einstein, Newton, Galileo, Kepler, Freud, Euclid, Hegel, Kant–we were, all of us, pushed well beyond any concept of a comfort zone we might have had, and out onto the heaving ocean of our ignorance, which was where I seemed to spend most of my time. It’s not until one has delved deep into conversation with the authors of the Great Books, and with one or two dozen other hungry minds, that one realizes how very little one actually knows about anything. One needs a sense of safety just to inhabit that place for any length of time, and to navigate the feeling of instability that comes with balancing on something no more substantial than the head of a pin, until the ground grows slightly more substantial and ones’ footing becomes more assured.
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I am not one to criticize those who find it frightening to have the intellectual ground yanked away from under one’s feet. I know first-hand how difficult it is to realize the things you “believe” are actually without foundation until they are examined, parsed, and tested. But this is what universities are supposed to be for. They are not–again, this has already been heavily written about and commented upon–for protecting and coddling. I was fortunate enough to spend four years in a place that to many might sound like a paradise, but which was actually a relentless testing chamber. As long as our students are lectured to instead of conversed with, as long as they are forced to digest packaged textbook versions of ideas instead of original sources, as long as they are told that true strength means clinging to one’s ideas rather than examining and questioning them, and–most of all–as long as they are allowed to resist solving problems for themselves, the pursuit of true understanding may be safely said to be gone in America. It is that concept, and no other, for which we should be providing a safe space. Everything else is wind.
— William Kowalski. More such denunciations of “safe spaces” and other euphemisms for intellectual cowardice are needed in order to restore our universities–not to mention other locations where ideas are supposed to be exchanged and debates are supposed to be had–to something resembling sanity. Incidentally, the reading list at St. John’s makes one weep for joy; clearly, there is at least one spot on the planet where ideas and great thought are allowed to spread and flourish, enlightening minds young and old in the process. Would that more of the world were as willing to embrace the contemplative life, instead of meaningless and coward-coddling “safe spaces.”
Originally published at pejmanyousefzadeh.net on December 5, 2015.