decolonization / Ineyak

Institutions of higher education and safe spaces

I’ve about had it up to here with the ignorant, vicious backlash against attempts to provide safe space at universities for students.

Students with disabilities are protected under the law — now.  It certainly wasn’t always that way.

NSCS13 Unsafe Shareable.jpg

LGBTQ students are barely protected.  Our society at large still views LGBTQ people as subhuman or disordered.


Students with perhaps undiagnosed PTSD are not protected.  For example, students and advocates are fueling a new movement to ask for a “trigger warning” before being exposed to graphically violent material in class.  I have never heard such an uproar of protests.  Apparently a brief statement on the syllabus would be too much to ask.  We all know that statistically some of our students in every class may have suffered rape or a violent assault.  It is certainly no hardship on a teacher to include a brief statement.

I have to admit, although I myself benefited from a kind professor in college who warned us of graphic rape in a movie before showing it to us, it never occurred to me to warn my students before sending them to watch Once Were Warriors, which has a graphic assault on a woman.  One of my students came to me horrified and shared that she had herself recently escaped from a brutally abusive relationship.  She would have appreciated a simple warning.  Since then, I’ve made the effort to be more understanding.  Many students may be fine, but we should protect the vulnerable as well and help guide them through college.

This is different from babying anyone.  Ask any of my former students.  I don’t mince words in class and I don’t have patience for foolishness.  But if a student has been harmed, the very least we can do is to “do no harm” ourselves.  And with the sky-high rates of reported rape on Guåhan, we have to understand that many of our students here will be vulnerable to certain triggers.

I have no patience for the argument that says students must grow up, or must undergo further traumatic experiences.  Students must, first and foremost, have a safe space in which to explore difficult material.  In graduate school, I was fortunate as I felt completely safe, free, and encouraged to ask the most challenging questions and deal with the ravages of Jacobean revenge tragedies (among some of the most gruesome works of all time).

This recent pathetic excuse for an essay, “This is Not a Day Care,” one of the worst attempts at intellectualism I’ve ever seen from a colleague babbles on:

Our culture has actually taught our kids to be this self-absorbed and narcissistic. Any time their feelings are hurt, they are the victims. Anyone who dares challenge them and, thus, makes them “feel bad” about themselves, is a “hater,” a “bigot,” an “oppressor,” and a “victimizer.”

This is utterly backwards.  Students in movements like that of the Black Student Union which is challenging the enshrinement of the racist legacy of Woodrow Wilson, are making our society better and stronger.  Racism weakens us and creates a society of hatred.  Bigots, I’m stunned to have to be able to tell this colleague, actually exist, and their impact is hideous.

It’s not about feeling bad, although frankly, it does matter to me if a student is harmed in any way, including emotionally.  Do we want a society in which students are being attacked?  It is about systematic oppression.  It is about creating a safe space for the Black Student Union to hold its meetings.  Just frankly, it is about demolishing historical systems of oppression and allowing for a level playing field rather than favoring some based on arbitrary skin color and excluding or disfavoring others.

I like this response from the Chronicle of Higher Education:

[Everett] Piper’s [“Not a Daycare”] letter begins with a bewildering story of a student who said he felt “victimized” during a chapel service at the university. The sermon featured a reading from 1 Corinthians, Chapter 13 — the “love is patient, love is kind” passage. “I have a message for this young man and all others who care to listen,” Piper wrote. “That feeling of discomfort you have after listening to a sermon is called a conscience!”

Be more loving. Right. What reasonable person would disagree with that? But has Oklahoma Wesleyan taken that advice? Does it, for instance, love transgender people? You tell me, after reading this quote from Page 8 of the university’s 2014-15 student handbook: “We maintain that a person does not have the right to alter one’s sexual identity, for surely this would be a defilement of the body which is the temple of the Holy Spirit (I Cor. 6:19).” For those not familiar with Christian scripture, that’s 1 Corinthians, Chapter 6, Verse 19. So, if you’re a transgender person who has undergone gender-reassignment surgery, you’re not welcome at Oklahoma Wesleyan. You have “defiled” your body. And yes, that’s the same book of the Bible that Piper cites as the reason for the student’s seemingly outrageous claim of being offended. If you’re appalled by the fact that a school would use the same biblical passage to both encourage love and to shame transgender people, you’re starting to understand conservative evangelical colleges.

Yeah.  Hotbeds of hatred and fear, overtly and ignorantly political, moneychangers in the temple.  Utterly disgusting.  I’ll say it straight up.  I’m disillusioned with “religious” education.

My own alma mater, Wheaton College, was an amazing place for me at the time.  I was exposed to wonderful teachers and I read some cutting-edge works that really made me think.  I believe I received a fine, if absurdly expensive, education there.

However, also, a fellow student, one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met, certainly far brighter than most of our Wheaton peers, was absolutely ostracized there.  He was told he wasn’t really Christian, that God didn’t love him, by some of our peers.  He also received ugly anonymous notes in his mailbox.  He transferred quickly to an Ivy League school.  He was treated so badly simply because he was Catholic, not Protestant.

Also, since I graduated, the college has been more known for obscenely backwards actions like firing a professor for getting divorced and denying its students health insurance.  It’s virulently homophobic as well.  For a place that began as a stop on the Underground Railroad, it’s absolutely run amuck into the lunatic fringe.

I’m now a professor myself.  My number-one goal is to challenge my students academically and inculcate critical-thinking skills.  Students certainly don’t always understand or appreciate this.  I myself, at 18-22, didn’t necessarily understand anything about the world beyond my family’s ideas.  I believe I’m sowing seeds in their minds and encouraging them to think critically.  I remember a professor in Women’s Studies, for whom I was a teaching assistant at the time, saying the most important thing we could possibly pass on was not feminism but critical thinking.  I 100% agree.

I can not praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather: that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary. That virtue therefore which is but a youngling in the contemplation of evil, and knows not the utmost that vice promises to her followers, and rejects it, is but a blank virtue, not a pure; her whiteness is but an excremental whiteness; which was the reason why our sage and serious poet Spenser, whom I dare be known to think a better teacher than Scotus or Aquinas, describing true temperance under the person of Guion, brings him in with his palmer through the cave of Mammon, and the bower of earthly bliss that he might see and know, and yet abstain. Since therefore the knowledge and survey of vice is in this world so necessary to the constituting of human virtue, and the scanning of error to the confirmation of truth, how can we more safely, and with less danger scout into the regions of sin and falsity than by reading all manner of tracts, and hearing all manner of reason? And this is the benefit which may be had of books promiscuously read.

Milton, Areopagitica.


One thought on “Institutions of higher education and safe spaces

  1. Pingback: Benefits of Safe Spaces – The Safe Space Debate

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