A Strange Idea of the Classroom as a “Safe Space”

by Kevin Jon Heller

I have admired Mark Tushnet’s work since I was a law student, so I was very disappointed to read his critique of the now-notorious letter the University of Chicago sent to first-year students about “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings.” Here is the bit that got Tushnet so riled up:

Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.

Most of Tushnet’s arguments involve reading the letter as uncharitably as possible — such as claiming that the University of Chicago would force a veteran to remain roommates with an anti-war activist who insisted on badgering him about the war every night. (Geoffrey Stone has already made clear that the University was not talking about dormitories.) But I was truly shocked when Tushnet made the following claim about the classroom as a safe space:

Even there, though, sometimes the university should condone the creation of a space in which there is a sharp restriction on “ideas and perspectives different from” the ones being offered in the class. Consider a course described clearly in the catalogue as a course dealing with Austrian economics, with a syllabus whose readings focus tightly on that topic. Students who want to discuss Marxist economics can, I think, properly be silenced in that class – perhaps as long as there is some other university-based venue in which they can explore Marxist economics – so that students only interested in Austrian economics can get on with their studies of that topic. Again – a safe space for the study of Austrian economics.

Really? As long as the University offers a course in Marxist economics, it’s fine for professors to “silence” a student who wants to use Marxist economics to question Austrian economics? The professor in the Austrian economics class should just say, “sorry, questioning Austrian economics is not permitted in this class. We’re here to learn what Austrian economics is about — not why it’s wrong. If you want to know why Austrian economics is wrong, go take a class with my hippie colleague”?

That strikes me as a terrible idea. Of course reasonable limits on discussion are appropriate — the Marxist student shouldn’t be able to dominate the class by questioning every assertion, nor should he or she be able to bring in Marxist ideas that have no relevance to Austrian economics. (“The proletariat will smash your bourgeois Austrian-economics state!”) But that is a far cry from saying it’s fine to “silence” the Marxist student so students “only interested in Austrian economics can get on with their studies of that topic.” That isn’t a “safe space.” It’s a propagandistic one that reduces learning to the uncritical reception of a professor’s preferred ideas. Little wonder the University of Chicago rejected the idea! Tushnet simply makes the University’s point.

PS: Given my lefty tendencies, it’s not surprising that Tushnet’s particular example got my hackles up. But the same criticism would apply to any course that wanted to create a “safe space” for learning a subject by excluding critical perspectives. I would be no less offended if the professor in an ICL course told a student who tried to challenge the value of punitive trials to shut up and go find a course on transitional justice.


6 Responses

  1. Spot-on, KJH.

  2. It is the Leftists who don’t tolerate dissent.

  3. A well-crafted argument. (See, e.g., Trump, Donald.)

  4. The author can quote only one – Trump, but the Stalins, Andropovs and Khruschevs are endless. Again ignored very conveniently by the author.

  5. I agree with KJH on this; although I have to say I kind of hope Tushnet’s position is an extreme minority one.

    Defending a position you’re lecturing on, or being able to address critiques, is a core skill expected of any professor. Pertinent questions should not be deflected in such a manner.

  6. I found the original University letter quite ordinary; in fact a breath of fresh air. It placed no restrictions on students or staff to create their own spaces.
    Rather, it appeared that the administration were taking a step back to allow everyone their own space while guaranteeing free speech in an open but safe environment.
    University would be mundane and boring without controversy and dissent.
    One thing the letter left out was the right and privilege to be both offensive and offended within reasonable limits (which vary depending on who/what/where)

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