One of the things that occasionally grabs my attention is the ongoing debate surrounding the creation of ‘safe spaces’ at universities. Most commentary I’ve encountered on the matter tends to be right-leaning, and often pursuing the narrative that such attempts diminish free speech and intellectual debate, whilst amounting to censorship.
The problem with this narrative is that it assumes one fundamental truth; that university is a place of intellectual debate, that undergraduates go to university to expand their horizons, learn new ideas – exclusively. Yet, that enlightened, liberal, intellectual idea of university is dead and buried.
The reasons for this is quite simple. University degrees are intrinsically tied with job prospects; to the point that most professional jobs demand a degree in their field as a basic requirement. Tied in with this is the fact that not all universities are equal, and so a good degree from a good university directly affects one’s prospects. Following from this, is of course, the point that not all universities currently are as academically rigorous as others, and therefore it is reasonable to say that this would impact the ability of that university to be a place that expands horizons, according to the university ideal.
Brushing those other reasons aside, the main reason is money. Graduates these days come out of university with a horrendous level of debt, and that is a pressure that has fundamentally changed what university is about. It is not a place of intellectual experimentation. It is now a place of intense work, chasing a degree that one hopes will pay off the mountain of debt you accumulate. It’s not surprising that research shows that increasingly, young people are choosing not to go to university at all. So, when critics condemn ‘safe spaces’ by evoking the idea of university as a place of intellectual experimentation, I can’t help but see misty-eyed romantics evoking a dead myth – not that I wouldn’t want university to be such a place, but sadly, it is not.
To move to the idea of ‘safe spaces’ itself, I find there’s a bit of a paradox in criticism of them. The first comes from the very mechanics that critics use against it – that it diminishes intellectual freedom and experimentation. Surely, to seek to remove such spaces likewise diminishes that same intellectual freedom and experimentation being championed? This is not a facetious point; it rather highlights the tricky waters of being liberal. If you believe people should be free to do what they want, then you can’t stop them from doing what they want. So, criticism of ‘safe spaces’ can only be valid in the scope of freedom if it firstly, does not seek to limit the ability of others to do as they choose, and secondly, it only finds validity when it is highlighting that someone’s will is being imposed on an unwilling subject. That’s the rub when it comes to liberty.
The thing is, the construction ‘safe spaces’ seems to be an explicit symptom of human behavior. By that, I mean we implicitly construct the our world in a number of spatial boundaries, where behavior is regulated by that spatial construction. These can be on various levels, where being in England means ‘Englishness’ is expressed (or at least demanded by some!), being at work means you express a professional image, and being at home means you express more relaxed, private behaviors. The point here is to highlight that we subscribe our behaviors (largely) to the demands of that particular space. A wonderful example of how we unconsciously seek to construct our own safe spaces can be glimpsed in our construction of our social circles – we keep company with those whom we get along with, and we drop the company of those we conflict with, be it on Twitter or in person at the pub. The core of the argument here is that we don’t actually tend to seek out conflict or debate, we largely instead, seek to construct out own safe spaces, where we can feel secure and supported socially.
As an aside, it is worthwhile to note that university is, in itself, a safe space regardless. In many ways it’s a proving ground before young adults are released into the world. Campus living, catered accommodation, all included bills, resists, mitigation, and let’s not forget the long holidays and lack of teaching time… The point of that list is to emphasise how university is very much a space where undergraduates are shielded from a number of realities of the world beyond which for the most part, only manifest when graduation is over and you realise it’s time to go find a job.
Through such reasons I ultimately find the fuss about ‘safe spaces’ rather trivial. At the heart of the matter, the criticism and creation of ‘safe spaces’ is just a turf war between proponents of two ideas of what the university space should be. What is more worrying is the blindness to how university has become a place of debt, that conforms to business’ expectations for university to become their unofficial training camp so they can pass the buck on investing any time in actually training their staff. That, and it seems to be another interesting metamorphoses of adult-led condemnation of students. Only a few years ago, people were moaning about how students did nothing but drink and party for three years, after all.