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The soft tyranny of safe spaces

Authentic education requires challenging students with ideas that may offend them


Robert P. George speaks at Arizona State University in Tempe, Ariz., on Jan. 26, 2018. Wikimedia Commons/Photo by Gage Skidmore

The soft tyranny of safe spaces
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In recent years, a growing number of colleges and universities have advocated the importance of providing “safe spaces” for students. This concern isn’t primarily related to students’ physical safety, though academic institutions take the physical safety of their students with great seriousness. Rather, safe spaces are primarily concerned with so-called emotional safety. It seems that many students don’t appreciate being exposed to ideas that make them uncomfortable. Especially socially conservative ideas that demur from the progressive status quo that dominates American higher education.

When schools reference safe spaces, they are typically referring to classrooms and other overtly academic settings like public lectures and symposia. These are the primary contexts where ideas are discussed and students could potentially be offended by perspectives that run counter to their own beliefs. But at Princeton University, even so-called third spaces can be transformed into safe spaces if the wrong guest is invited to share a meal.

On Feb. 14, Princeton student Matthew Wilson invited one of his professors to lunch at Princeton’s Charter Club, one of several exclusive eating clubs at the university. That professor was Robert P. George, who is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions. George is also a devout Roman Catholic and committed social conservative. As Wilson recounts in a recent article in The Daily Princetonian, some members of the Charter Club were concerned that George’s presence was contrary to the club’s inclusive environment, leading to a rule change requiring some visitors to be approved in advance by club leadership. Wilson writes,

A “group of membership”—whose identities and precise numbers were unspecified—felt “caught off guard” when they saw my professor in Charter, and they were deeply upset by his presence. In the future, at minimum, they wanted “the right to not be in that space” at the same time as him. After receiving their complaint, the club acceded to their demands.

In other words, one of Princeton’s most distinguished faculty members is now unwelcome as a visitor at a university eating club because some students find his conservatism offensive. Notably, George wasn’t even advocating for his views. He was simply there. But his presence itself proved too much for some fragile students.

A real education entails wrestling with ideas—including ideas we ultimately reject for any number of reasons.

The incident at Princeton is the latest evidence that the idea of safe spaces is contrary to the very spirit of higher education. We like to imagine that universities—especially prestigious pluralistic universities like Princeton—are institutions animated by ideas. This is no doubt the case in many individual classrooms, where professors help their students cultivate the academic virtues of critical thinking, skillful argumentation, and effective communication. But on the whole, higher education today is dominated more by ideology than ideas. The academic orthodoxies of our era include a mix of Marxist cultural analysis, postmodernism, various critical theories, intersectionality, and transgressive social ethics. Conservative ideas are academic heresies, the professors who countenance such views are heretics, and left-wing academics and their administrative allies function as a progressive inquisition when the contrarians attract too much attention.

Ironically, George himself has been a vocal advocate for the recovery of academic freedom within pluralistic institutions dominated by intellectually illiberal ideas like safe spaces. For example, he is a founding member of the Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA), which is a nonprofit “whose members are dedicated to protecting the rights of faculty members at colleges and universities to speak, instruct, and publish without fear of sanction or punishment.” The members of the AFA “uphold the principles that are required if scholars are to fulfill their vocation as truth-seekers and colleges and universities are to be faithful to their mission as truth-seeking institutions.”

The soft tyranny of safe spaces is incompatible with authentic education. Students ought to be challenged with new ideas and fresh vantage points. And some of those ideas ought to provoke discomfort, whether it is the progressive student hearing arguments against DEI initiatives or the conservative student hearing arguments in favor of critical race theory.

A real education entails wrestling with ideas—including ideas we ultimately reject for any number of reasons. Rather than coddling the American mind, educators need to challenge students to become responsible and resilient adults who know how to evaluate ideas, advance arguments, and think for themselves.


Nathan A. Finn

Nathan is a professor of faith and culture and directs the Institute for Transformational Leadership at North Greenville University in Tigerville, S.C. He is a research fellow for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and is senior editor for Integration: A Journal of Faith and Learning. He also serves as teaching pastor at the First Baptist Church of Taylors, S.C.


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