Are safe spaces valuable for the learning environment?

Safe spaces continue to become more popular, but also more controversial. Here are two perspectives.

January 3, 2017

Safe spaces coddle students from discomfort

About four months ago, the University of Chicago faced ridicule from the public and various news sources when they sent a letter to its incoming freshmen announcing that they “do not support so-called trigger warnings, [they] do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and [they] do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces,’” which have been growing in popularity on college campuses in the past years.

By struggling through discomfort in a setting that is relatively safe, students only stand to gain new perspectives or educate their peers.”

— Kate Janda

However, college campuses should not be a place where students are guaranteed comfort or ease;  one of the purposes of a college education is to prepare students for the real world. As students, we will certainly face difficult conversations off-campus, and we will not always have intellectual safe spaces to retreat to. Because safe spaces are only a temporary solution to a problem that people will be faced with throughout their lives, safe spaces on college campuses should be discouraged.

Simply because a topic seems hard to talk about is not a valid reason to avoid it altogether. In reality, we will have to face and come to terms with topics that we may not be comfortable with. In a classroom setting, discussion about emotionally-charged topics can be kept controlled, respectful, and constructive, whereas encountering the same rhetoric outside the classroom could result in increased levels of bigotry.

Therefore, as students, it is our responsibility to take the opportunity to engage in and learn from discussions about potentially difficult topics. Furthermore, during these emotionally-charged exchanges, we should listen and respond to the opinions of our peers, even if and when we disagree. Using informed and positive rhetoric that creates understanding, we can build a learning environment that everyone can participate in, instead of making others feel as if they need a safe space to recover.

Safe spaces are basically physical manifestations of better-known trigger warnings, with which they are closely associated. However, trigger warnings and safe spaces should not be confused as identical; trigger warnings are “designed to help students who are struggling with trauma-related reactions prepare for and manage those reactions so they can engage in the discussion and complete their coursework,” according to Elana Newman of the  New York Times.

Trigger warnings set the expectation that there will be emotion in the classroom, while safe spaces create a medium by which students can retreat from these emotional challenges. Therefore, unlike safe spaces, the use of trigger warnings should be encouraged because of their value in preparing students for uncomfortable discussions.

While in concept safe spaces can appear to be positive, actual safe spaces create a bubble where young people are unrealistically sheltered from having their opinions and beliefs challenged.

Like many spare-their-feelings enterprises, safe spaces can easily go too far, turning from a necessary comfort to superfluous coddling. As students, we must remember that feeling uncomfortable, unwelcome, or challenged is not necessarily negative. College students are in prime formative years and shape their opinions through experiences and conversations. By struggling through discomfort in a setting that is relatively safe, students only stand to gain new perspectives or educate their peers. Ultimately, if safe spaces are allowed and these conversations are avoided, students miss out on the critical opportunity to inform others, share their experiences, and help to form new, stronger opinions.

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Safe spaces keep students safe and comfortable

In today’s world, the topics of safe spaces and trigger warnings are being talked and debated about, but many times they aren’t fully understood. Many schools and student organizations are fighting to create safe spaces and expand the role of trigger warnings, but some of these movements are meeting resistance partially because people don’t fully understand what these terms mean.

Trigger warnings prevent people from feeling uncomfortable when topics such as sexual/physical abuse, depression, suicide, drug abuse, etc. are discussed. In all levels of school, such topics are talked about. In a BSM scenario, if your morality class is discussing sexual assault and a trigger warning is in place, you may leave the room or choose to not be a part of the conversation if you feel uncomfortable in any way. Along with trigger warnings being verbal, they also take place in books, videos, and other texts. Class syllabi may have a trigger warning if on a specific day a possible controversial topic is being discussed; speakers may use trigger warnings before talking about certain things, and teachers may warn students about sensitive topics in books they have to read for school.

Safe spaces provide areas where students can take a break from the fear that conversations about issues that affect them deeply could come up at any moment.”

— Alexia Saavedra

According to Rainn.org, one in six women and one in 33 men have been victim of an attempted or completed sexual assault. At Benilde-St. Margaret’s, that could potentially be about 235 students. Many times, victims of sexual assault are left with emotions that are hard to face, with many suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety. In some situations, this trauma can make it difficult to discuss topics like assault. These kinds of conversations flood their minds with bad memories––memories that should be discussed with their therapists, not students and teachers.

One step further in addition to trigger warnings is to have a safe space. As a result, the student would not have to be scared to go to class and have to be faced with a difficult conversation that they are unable to deal with, or be faced with embarrassment and fear that their classmates will know what happened to them. A safe space applies not only to sexual assault victims but to every person as well who has trouble dealing with difficult or contentious topics.

As young people, it’s tough to have respectful conversations about subjects that are debatable. People have a hard time accepting that others have different opinions or experiences than their own. In a safe space, no one has to be worried that others will be judgemental of them or try and change what they believe. They know that once they walk into the safe space, it is a break from the rest of the exhausting exchanges that take place outside of the classroom. Students who request trigger warnings or safe spaces are not avoiding problematic conversations intentionally. Instead, they are wanting to face these topics in ways that are academically arduous, yet understanding to everyone.

Students shouldn’t have to be bombarded with uncomfortable topics and difficult conversations everywhere they go, especially when they are in a learning environment. Embodying safe spaces in schools isn’t completely stripping away students’ freedom of speech; it’s ensuring every student can participate in a discussion without feeling uncomfortable, and providing areas where students can take a break from the fear that conversations about issues that affect them deeply could come up at any moment.

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