Why the Safe Space Debate is All Wrong

For the love of God, people: Can we please get pragmatic about the safe space debate? Let’s stop the posturing (yes, I believe the U of C letter was posturing). And let’s also stop the totally impractical approaches to policing speech that prompted it. Please, let’s argue less about our rights, and let’s start talking much more about our responsibilities—as educators and as students.

What are those responsibilities? I take my cue from my own tradition. The ancient sage Hillel the Elder taught: “Lo ha-bayshan lamed, v’lo ha-kapdan milamed,” “One who is embarrassed cannot learn, and one who is a perfectionist cannot teach.”

What does that mean? For educators, it means that we have to create an environment in which our students aren’t afraid to ask questions, where they aren’t afraid of our response, or the response of other students, if they take a risk for the sake of learning. This isn’t a question of propriety, it’s a practical question: If our students are too embarrassed to learn, and if we are such sticklers for perfection, then learning will not happen. 

A successful learning environment is one where we trust each other: Where students trust one another and their teachers, where teachers trust other teachers and their students, and where all of us trust each other as citizens.

But it also means something for students: As learners, we can’t allow our embarrassment, our sense of disempowerment, our sense of offense, our sense that we don’t belong, to keep us from participating in the learning enterprise. We can’t make others feel so deeply embarrassed that they can no longer participate as learners. And we can’t insist on a level of purity that makes it impossible for our teachers to teach. Yes, our teachers should do everything they can to welcome us into the community of learning, but we students also have agency, we also hold the learning environment—for ourselves and our fellow students. Learning is not solely the responsibility of the teacher; it is also, and especially in college and other adult learning communities, the responsibility of the student and the students.

Which is to say, a successful learning environment is one where we trust each other: Where students trust one another and their teachers, where teachers trust other teachers and their students, and where all of us trust each other as citizens.

One of my great teachers, Parker Palmer, talks about learning as participating in the community of truth. Parker defines truth, and education, in one of the most powerful sentences I’ve ever come across: “Truth is an eternal conversation about things that matter, conducted with passion and discipline.” There are many things I love about this sentence, but chief among them is the way that learning is a conversation, and that all of us—teachers and students alike—have agency and responsibility in that eternal conversation.

What Parker describes here isn’t a safe space. It’s a trustworthy space. It’s a space where we can be passionate and disciplined at the same time, where we are not embarrassed to participate on the one hand, nor so rigid that we make it impossible to engage on the other. A trustworthy space is a community of truth, a learning community.

So let’s change the focus from the cheap and easy stuff—the points we score on the internet when we rail against language about safe spaces and micro-aggressions, or when we protest this or that speaker on campus, or when we spout off about this or that student or administrator who writes or says something controversial. That’s not the central stuff. That’s avoiding the real work that needs to happen.

Instead, let’s focus on the much harder stuff: How do we help our faculty, staff, and students to create learning communities and trustworthy spaces? What kinds of skills, mindsets, and pedagogies do we need for great learning to happen? How do we build trustworthy spaces where we can take risks, make mistakes, welcome our full diversity, and learn together?

That’s what we’re focused on at Ask Big Questions. And if that speaks to you, I invite you to join us in our work.