Unsafe Spaces

There’s a particular trope among certain parts of Twitter discourse which involve the supposed sensitivity of my generation of University students. We’ve all heard the “snowflake” trope, we’ve all heard how millennials are awful. I find this trend stupid, but mostly harmless. Let old people be angry at the young – they have few better things to worry about, it seems.

But of the “I’m so comfortably middle class I’m worrying about the attitudes of students whom I don’t even know” starter pack, there’s one element which really grinds my gears. It really gets my goat. You could say that it “triggers” me[1]. It is the concept that Universities shouldn’t implement adequate social policies because they have a “responsibility to challenge students”.

Snowflake Morphology2

[1] – …and you’d be an arsehole.

I’m not making up a straw figure here – the Vice-chancellor of Oxford University was recently claiming that she was “interested in making you feel uncomfortable”, by which she meant that she had no responsibility to stop professors from espousing homophobic views to their classes.

“I’ve had many conversations with students who say they don’t feel comfortable because their professor has expressed views against homosexuality” – University of Oxford Vice-chancellor Prof. Louise Richardson

Now, clearly the most important social issue here is that this is clearly a defense of homophobia, and a mealy mouthed one at that. Regardless of whether the VC holds explicitly homophobic views, if they choose not to take action about homophobia expressed often to students, then they are by their inaction endorsing its expression. This is simply unacceptably irresponsible behavior by a person with immense power over – and therefore great responsibility for – the welfare of students and staff at the institution. I would not accept my VC saying something similar, even if that risked my job.


But what makes this cow-pat icing on the bullshit cake is that the logical processes behind it rely on a false dichotomy about how students are taught. The reason, it is oft claimed, that Universities shouldn’t be “safe spaces” is that a student is there to have their views challenged, and to challenge those views they meet. If we don’t force students to be challenged, goes the thinking, then we cannot teach them adequately. Yes, apparently your professor’s homophobia is a part of your Chemistry qualification now.

Glib comparisons aside, the problem with this line of reasoning is that it conflates gender, sexual preference, race, ability, and other “social justice” themes with simple opinion, as if one can be simply reasoned out of their Jewish birth or their genitalia. “Education is not about being comfortable.” says the VC of Oxford University, and she is right, but education’s scope is specifically focused on modes of thinking; on analysis and insight, on wisdom, and on facts. None of these encompass the practice of racism or homophobia, and they shouldn’t, because Universities do not intend to teach prejudice. There is a difference between exposing people to ideas which they don’t like and exposing them to people who think their essential worth is negligible.


Furthermore, education at the level of an undergraduate degree is as much about the student volunteering their discomfort as it is the University providing it. The best learning experiences are indeed while the student is in a position of (intellectual) discomfort, but this is only effective when the discomfort is limited in scope, is specific, is relevant, and has been sought by the student from a position of comfort. If the discomfort is all-pervasive, it ceases to be an effective means of instruction. It’s the difference between letting a child choose to climb a wall, and locking them unsupervised on a fifth-story roof.

We as academics only teach effectively when we have the consent of the students. Allowing academics to force these “uncomfortable” views upon their students jeopardizes that consent. It renders irrelevant the initiative of the students to seek their learning experiences, to volunteer to experience their intellectual discomfort.

Sneering at “safe spaces” in the name of effective education is to raise a false and absurd dichotomy, and any sincere educator should understand that.

If you want to hear more on the subject, you can watch Prof. Dave K Smith’s lecture “No Sexuality Please – We’re Scientists” and follow him on Twitter @professor_dave.


About stoove

A physicist, researcher, and gamesman. Likes to think about the mathematics and mechanics behind all sorts of different things, and writing up the thoughts for you to read. A competent programmer, enjoys public speaking and mechanical keyboards. Has opinions which might even change from time to time.
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