Today, in our Claremont Colleges Center for Teaching and Learning Book Club meeting, my colleague Kathy Van Heuvelen shared with us a great analogy relating to the current controversy about “safe spaces” in college classrooms: Good athletes know their bodies well enough to know the difference between soreness and injury. Soreness is a sign that you’ve been working your body hard and that you’re getting stronger and faster. Injury is a sign that you’ve gone too far and need healing.
In a similar vein, our job as instructors is to help students develop the self-awareness to know the difference between feeling uncomfortable with having our ideas and beliefs challenged (a sign that we’re on our way to getting stronger and wiser) and feeling alienated, marginalized, or belittled. I posit that “brave spaces” are classroom environments in which students expect the former and not the latter.
I firmly believe that a good college education should challenge students with ideas and beliefs that are different from their own and should help them to develop the reflective judgment and skills of inquiry to be able to think on their own.
There is a lot of misunderstanding in the popular media about “safe spaces”. I fully agree that we don’t want spaces in which students never encounter any ideas that they find challenging or uncomfortable. I want students to encounter feel challenged (and perhaps even desire it), but in an environment where there is discomfort within a structure that gives them a sense of security. The kind of “safe spaces” that are being described in the media sound like echo chambers where you only hear your own thoughts, and no colleague that I have talked to wants that for our students either.