The Harm of Intellectual Safe Places

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As my time as a college student is coming to an end, I’ve been reflecting on the past four years. One particular issue keeps coming to mind: how intellectual safe places lead to the cultivation of self-censorship and political polarization. 

I declared majors in philosophy and political science after my first semester of college at an agricultural business school in Oklahoma. It was an excellent introduction to college — my professors helped me feel comfortable exploring my ideas and they demonstrated how to engage in civil discourse. After two years, I decided to transfer to a private liberal arts college in New York City. The transition to my current university was shocking, as many of the students have little tolerance for views outside the campus norm. Many professors at this university call their classrooms intellectual safe places, but they grossly abuse the term. 

Intellectual safe places are positive environments where people feel comfortable exchanging and expressing their ideas, opinions, and feelings without fear of retribution from others. Comments that are intended to ridicule or negate students’ views are not allowed in a classroom setting. Socratic dialogue is not solely elenchus, or questioning, but also listening. Before someone can question another, they must listen by putting their thoughts aside to be “truly open to what the other is saying.” The students will then be open to hearing any questions or comments — as long as they are respectful — from other students in the classroom. The result is “a growing trust” between students and instructors and “courage to present one’s own thoughts,” no matter how complex and contentious the issue may be. 

Comfort in the classroom is dependent on trust. Students must trust themselves and their peers to “honestly and genuinely engage in thinking,” which can be uncomfortable. Our educators’ role is to help students navigate difficult conversations that put their positions at risk of critique while maintaining respect for their peers. It is vital that students are taught how to articulate their thoughts and respect their peers; these skills can lead to better relationships outside the classroom and foster understanding among diverse communities. However, the professors at my university who make their classrooms a place for intellectual safety do not provide the space for this crucial dialectical process. 

Almost all of my political science professors say they encourage debate in their classrooms. Professors often use examples when discussing salient issues to get the ball rolling. For example, my professor for Constitutional Law and Democracy often uses the January 6th insurrection as an example of peaceful transitions of power being undermined. Most of the examples used by my professors fall along specific ideological lines that fit the “norm” of the student body. At the same time, these professors will provide their ideological opinion that may not align with students in the outgroup. Students may not feel comfortable disagreeing with the class, and especially the instructor who is in charge of determining their grades. All of a sudden, debate has turned into conformity. This is different from what a proper intellectual safe place is. 

I watch my peers add to the discussion by reformulating the students’ thoughts. At my previous university, I never opted out of talking, even when I was part of the minority position. For most of my philosophical studies, I have been a visible minority as the only female in business ethics and Kantian courses. I fit in the majority more than others, but I still have views that do not align entirely with the norm of the current university. However, the reactions of students from both universities are different. There was a sense of respect for one another at my previous university. At my current university, the students and professors — specifically in the political science department — hold animus toward these unpopular positions. Now, there are days when I opt to not speak at all or in playing devil’s advocate because of these reactions. 

Self-censorship has increased the threat of “students’ ability to engage in open inquiry, appreciate viewpoint diversity, and even discuss uncomfortable scientific conclusions.” Based on what politicians and the media have portrayed, it is intuitive to believe that self-censorship is higher among conservative students. A poll from Gallup/Knight Foundation also finds that 73% of conservative students often keep their thoughts to themselves because of the potential consequences of expressing that opinion. This is not just a problem for conservative students. One survey found that 24% of liberals choose to censor their political views. However, the essence of this problem goes beyond ideological boundaries. A 2021 survey by College Pulse found that of the 37,000 students at 159 colleges surveyed, 80% said that they self-censor at least some of the time. This level of control is chilling.   

Some people believe the censorship problem is not as bad as it seems. One article from MSNBC responding to a New York Times op-ed about a University of Virginia student’s experience of self-censorship argues that her experience need not cause anxiety among college students. The author argues first that not speaking is part of the human experience. Research showing that students voluntarily decline to talk should not be alarming. Second, everyone gauges what is appropriate to speak about in specific environments. What you may talk about with your friends differs from what you talk about with your boss or doctor. Third, the consequences of self-censorship are not anything new. Instead, what we experience when opting not to speak is the “timeless reality of what it means to articulate unpopular opinions.” 

I cannot agree with the author. Declining to speak is a choice. Part of the intellectual safe space model is that students have the right to not join the conversation. There are instances where students may not have substantive ideas to share with their peers, and they would rather listen and observe the subject matter before participating. However, it is concerning when students choose not to speak out for fear of being devalued by their peers. These are two different ideas of the choice to speak. Second, the classroom is an open space for students to discuss the most sensitive and complex topics. Students should not discuss with their doctor whether abortion is moral or ask their boss if all Black art is political. These are topics for the classroom. As long as students who engage in the conversation are respectful of their peers, anything should go. Third, we should not normalize the “timeless reality” that the author is proposing because there are genuine consequences to self-censorship. Namely, it breeds censorship in all forms. 

Student protestors over speakers on college campuses is nothing new. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) director Thomas Homan gave a talk on immigration at the University of Pennsylvania. Protestors in the audience became so disruptive that the university shut down the talk minutes after it started. Arizona State University was faced with opposition towards their funding of Mohammed El-Kurd — a Palestinian author who challenges the ideas of Zionism and the Israeli government — speaking on campus. My university has censored the Students for Justice in Palestine organization on campus and a pro-Second Amendment student. Anyone who believes that intellectual exchange is a major goal of higher education should be gravely concerned. The absence of intellectual safe places can lead to these polarization scenarios. 

I decided to write this article after a student in my political participation class was asked by the professor to speak because she had yet to contribute to the conversation in the last few classes. As someone who speaks frequently in that class, I shuddered when I heard her response. She stated she did not feel comfortable contributing to the conversation because she disagreed with several students in the class. The professor for this class stated clearly at the beginning of the semester that our classroom was not your typical “safe space” at Fordham. The professor encouraged us to challenge each other and himself, to express our ideas, and to be comfortable with being vulnerable. Our discussions center around extremely salient issues. We have a diverse group of students spanning age, race, occupation, and walks of life in this night class. It is one of the political science classes I have cherished the most for cultivating a space of true intellectual inquiry. No student should feel that their stance is not valuable in the classroom. 

Several solutions can be utilized by educators to correctly implement intellectual safe places. The traditional teaching model is for the instructor to believe that they have mastered the subject and the students are the learners. The traditional model precludes the type of listening that is part of Socratic dialogue. Instructors must be open to learning from the varying ideas of their students because inquiry never stops. Another solution is respecting silence; instructors who try to rush discussion and answers must appreciate the thoughtfulness of students constructing an answer or response. Students need time to express and clarify their stances while understanding and responding to what their peers say. Another great solution is to arrange desks in a circle—it encourages students to call on each other, respond respectfully when engaging face-to-face, and relieve the instructor of leading the discussion. This gives students, the interlocutors, the power to get the most out of their education. And it will lead students to live a life of intellectual safety.

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This article was edited by Hannah Pearce and Margeaux Wenner.