On Safe Spaces, Challenges and Higher Education

I attended Carson-Newman College for undergrad, and spent about a year and a half in an education program at the University of Tennessee pursuing a Master’s. Carson-Newman was and still remains a quiet little Southern Baptist institution that required all students to attend church services at least once a week to graduate. UT is a bit more…diverse and secular.

When I went to UT, one class I took was a sociology course with a militant feminist black atheist professor. This lady took one look at me from day one and referred to me as an “ignorant country bumpkin” and delighted in finding new ways to mock me and everything I believed. She challenged me repeatedly with every belief I had, and forced me into hefty debates on a number of subjects as we moved forward. At the end of the semester, she even sent me a parting email telling me that she was sorry I felt the course material was “full of crap” and that the students weren’t as “enlightened like you with your Jesus-fueled nobility.”

I fired back at this professor on numerous occasions and challenged her repeatedly. I will fully admit that was a day and time when I had a bit more piss and vinegar in me than now, but the point is that I respected her for her continued attempts to challenge me and my beliefs. I expected that at some point in my life I’d encounter a professor who made me explain why I thought the Bible was the infallible word of God, or why I felt cultural relativism (and relativism in general) was a flawed worldview. It was-and continues to remain-my understanding that colleges are a place where students can and should learn critical thinking skills.

Fast forward to today, and places like Oberlin College. I see a place here which is not a higher learning institution. Oberlin is a place where students are demanding “trigger warnings” be placed on syllabi. Oberlin creates “safe spaces” for students who can’t stand to be exposed to ideas and speakers that may challenge their precious little opinions or hurt their special snowflake feelings. Oberlin’s teachers have now even coined a term called “discursive violence.”–words that can hurt, damage, or kill others–and it’s working its way into the world of academic jargon.

Even law schools aren’t safe from this crap. In the wake of the Eric Garner and Michael Brown grand jury decisions, certain law schools like Harvard and GWU began allowing students–after acquiescing to student demands–to defer final exams because they couldn’t emotionally process the “injustice of the system” which they planned to devote their lives. Some professors actually rejected these requests for exam deferrals, which led to the students saying things like “you’re proving our point that no one cares about us or how we feel.”

There are some in academia that are fighting back. Recently a professor at Texas A&M Galveston, Irwin Horowitz, failed an entire class of his “Strategic Management” course, claiming they continually disrespected him and his class, and that none of the students in the course possessed the character or integrity to be an Aggie. Horowitz said that while some students were doing OK in the class, the overall environment was such that he had no choice but to walk away from the entire matter and show the students some “tough love.”

Rather than abide by the professor’s decision, the head of that department has taken over the class and plans to teach the rest of the semester, claiming that all who meet the “academic standards” will pass the class.

I miss the days of my militant professor who called me an “ignorant, Jesus-loving hick” and her being supported by the academic department. I miss the days of students being challenged to critically think. I miss the days of standards, the days when words mean something, and the days when people were taught to respect the beliefs of others, no matter how “ignorant” they were.

Because we’re losing that to a nation of infantilized “adults” who need “safe spaces” to protect them from the big scary world.

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