Death to “Safe Spaces”

39703687_MLThe 1994 film “PCU” is a tale of a senior in high school who visits Port Chester University (otherwise known as Politically Correct University) over a weekend. In error, the admissions department sets the student up to stay with Droz, a 7th year senior. Living with Droz in a place called “the Pit,” it makes for an interesting weekend.

Droz and his friends begin the weekend by disrupting a protest. They throw meat on a group of vegans and make enemies with a variety of other groups on campus including a bunch of stoners, radical feminists (the “Womynists”), and an Afrocentrist group. The president of the fictional university is positively obsessed with “sensitivity awareness” and multiculturalism. Among a variety of other policies (suggesting, for example, that Bisexual Asian Studies be given their own building) she proposes changing the school’s mascot from a potentially offensive Native American character to a whooping crane.

The rest of the film centers around Droz and his cohorts fighting to keep their living space on campus by throwing a massive keg party (while simultaneously locking the Board of Trustees in a room with the song “Afternoon Delight” playing loudly on repeat).

In a recent episode, the show South Park took up the topic of political correctness and college campuses, discussing the prevalence of and continuous push for “safe spaces.” The episode culminated in the townspeople hanging the only thing questioning their safe spaces—a man named Reality.

While both this movie and the episode of South Park were particularly humorous, they reflect a scary trend in academia. Free speech is dead on many campuses, as is the ability to reflect upon and grapple with difficult subjects. This became clear last year at Yale, when someone dared to question the university-wide email calling on students to be cautious in choosing their Halloween costume (because God forbid anyone should be offended). Students were outraged, calling for the offending faculty member to be fired, even surrounding him outside a building to yell at him. Students at Emory University are apparently unable to cope with a chalk image of presidential candidate Donald Trump.

What have we come to that young adults attending some of the most elite educational institutions have the emotional capacity of toddlers and intellectual skin as thin as puff pastry?

The fact of the matter is, college is supposed to be a place where you get offended! I tell my students that if they aren’t being challenged in their classes they aren’t getting what they ought to be getting. I tell them that, “if you don’t question the opinions that you hold, you cannot claim them as your own.” Too often people take with whatever they hear in school or on the news as gospel.

That’s the definition of ignorant.

To not challenge our students does them a grave disservice. As opposed to growing as individuals, who have been exposed to, thought about, and grappled with tough issues, they become what my mother would call “hot house flowers.” That is, they require an inordinate amount of care and highly precise conditions lest they shrivel up and die.

Such individuals don’t do well in the “real world.” I hate to tell Emory students, for example, that if their future coworker has a political bumper sticker, claiming that makes you feel threatened makes one look like a petulant child and a complete idiot (impressive in all the wrong ways). In the workforce, people aren’t always nice. They don’t bend over backward to ensure you’re fragile psyche is never offended. If students have failed to learn how to stand firmly as individuals, to take criticism and interact with all kinds of people, they’re in for a tough road.

I refuse to play into this with my students. In reality, there are people from all kinds of places, different racial, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds. People think differently and hold different ideals. You often don’t get to decide whether or you interact with these people, but your ability to function as an adult depends on whether or not you can work with these individuals successfully. Since college is supposed to be preparing students for the real world, they better get used to differing opinions.

My classroom is indeed a safe space—for students and ideas. I write into my syllabus that we will discuss controversial topics. I require them to treat each other with respect. Attacking a person for the opinions they hold is not acceptable. However, questioning someone’s ideas or opinion is, and should be, done frequently and without hesitation.

I find that once students learn it’s OK to disagree with someone, they feel more comfortable engaging. Sometimes, when discussing a policy issue like the minimum wage, human organ sales, child labor, or environmental regulation, students will ask for my opinion. I always reiterate what it is that economics tells us. But I always follow it with something to the extent of, “my opinion may or may not go along with that.” I always tell my students that, when answering questions about a policy on an assignment, or discussing it in class, the credit they will receive has absolutely nothing to do with the opinions they hold. I’m concerned with how they argue for their stance and the economic reasoning they use to justify it.

Students should reflect on their held beliefs and have their existing ideals challenged. If we are truly concerned about critical thinking and cultivating the next generation of leaders, we owe it to out college students challenge them.

Abigail R. Hall is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and an Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Tampa.
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