Saturday, August 27, 2016

More on the University of Chicago letter on "safe spaces" [I]

Mark Tushnet

The widely noted University of Chicago letter to freshman is, I’m afraid – with due respect to my friends there – basically quite stupid (in the words that have attracted the most attention). The phrasings are either transparently false or so vague as to obstruct rather than facilitate clear thinking about the issues the letter purports to address.

Quoting: “We do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe’ spaces where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” That’s either false or an indication that people should think carefully about sending their children to the University. Consider some examples: A war veteran is assigned a dormitory room with a roommate who is aggressively anti-the-war-in-which-the veteran-served. Almost every evening the roommate seeks to engage the veteran in a conversation about the injustice of the war and of specific incidents during it. The veteran goes to the appropriate university authorities and asks to be assigned a different roommate, saying, “I’m perfectly happy to engage in a discussion of the war in a military history class, a philosophy class on justice in wartime, and in many other places. But in the evening I just want to kick back and relax, and study for my classes. My room, in short, should be a safe space with respect to conversations about the war.” I think the university might well be irresponsible if its only response were, “Grown-ups have to learn how to work out for themselves the resolution of these kinds of disputes.” (That’s the “think carefully about sending your kids to the University” prong.) And, in my view, it wouldn’t be acting badly if it reassigned either the veteran or the roommate to another dormitory room, thereby "condon[ing] the creation of [an] intellectual 'safe space'" for the veteran. (That’s the “it’s false” prong.)

Or consider variations on the widely known case of Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, the outcome of which conservatives have vigorously criticized. One way of putting the claim by CLS in that case is that the members of the organization were entitled by the Constitution to have a safe space within which they could explore those aspects of Christianity that they chose to explore. Again, they might well be willing to discuss evidence for miracles and other features of Christian belief in other venues, such as classes in the history of religion, but they want somewhere that they can explore the questions they find most pressing. Allowing non-Christians into the association makes that difficult. A variation would be an association of Jewish students who wanted to exclude from their meetings neo-Nazis who wanted to discuss the “evidence” presented in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. These, and similar cases that are readily imaginable, show that universities can, and sometimes should, “condone the creation of intellectual safe spaces” of the sort the letter describes.

To the extent that there’s something coherent underlying this aspect of the letter, it is that the university does not condone the creation of safe spaces in certain venues. But then all the interesting work lies in identifying the venues. As far as I can tell, there are several candidates. The first and most obvious is the classroom. Even there, though, sometimes the university should condone the creation of a space in which there is a sharp restriction on “ideas and perspectives different from” the ones being offered in the class. Consider a course described clearly in the catalogue as a course dealing with Austrian economics, with a syllabus whose readings focus tightly on that topic. Students who want to discuss Marxist economics can, I think, properly be silenced in that class – perhaps as long as there is some other university-based venue in which they can explore Marxist economics – so that students only interested in Austrian economics can get on with their studies of that topic. Again – a safe space for the study of Austrian economics.

A second candidate for an appropriate venue in which there are no safe spaces are the university’s common areas. Here – maybe – the Chicago letter’s position might have some bite, in proscribing the creation of exclusive “free speech zones” in university common spaces, thereby making other zones “safe spaces.” I’m unsympathetic to the idea of exclusive free speech zones, but I confess that I can’t get too excited about their creation as long as they aren’t overly restrictive. For example, it’s not obvious to me that a university should be criticized for excluding “free speech activities” (suitably defined) from heavily trafficked areas when it has experience showing that such activities in those areas impedes students’ ability to get to their regularly scheduled classes on time (though a lot of work is hidden in the phrase “suitably defined”).

A final candidate are the common areas on residential dormitories. Here, I think, the question is the extent to which the roommate case I opened with extends outside the physical space of the room itself. I take the Chicago position to be that, whatever the resolution of the roommate case, the corridors and other common spaces in residential dormitories will not be “safe spaces.” To which my reaction is, “The letter is a rather exaggerated way of saying that.”

So, I think, when the conservative-tinged politically-correct overtones of the Chicago letter are put aside and its intellectual content examined, there’s really not much there.

More later on “we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’” which, if taken seriously (which later “explanations” show it should not be), is an interference with sometimes appropriate pedagogic choices some instructors make.

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