Safe spaces for dangerous conversations: notes on teaching
"Students... who are better able to ask critical questions of themselves as of others, will be better prepared for entry into any career."
My self-understanding as a university professor and teacher owes much to the “Junior Year Abroad” program at the London School of Economics (LSE) in the mid-1980s. A cosmopolitan atmosphere at the LSE bristling with irrepressible energy, conflicting ideas, political disagreement and debate, immeasurably broadened my narrow horizons and was to have a lasting impact on my approach to teaching.
I was exposed to the often radically conflicting perspectives of teachers spanning the political spectrum. The tutor assigned me was the political philosopher Kenneth Minogue, then a senior advisor to Margaret Thatcher, who would subsequently go on to preside over the influential neoliberal Mont Pellerin Society, founded by Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman.
My own nascent approach to politics could not have been more different from that of Minogue’s, who routinely took serious issue with my views, was always intimidating and occasionally rudely dismissive. To an extent, the experience was upsetting – it was not an experience I would ever put my students through. However, I will say it was not at all damaging or, indeed, lacking in value. In retrospect, it helped me to grow; as a young intellectual and as a person, it was a provocation to respond in kind, and sharply.
Arriving home in Vancouver at the end of my time in the UK, I read Minogue’s newly published book and wrote an earnest six-page refutation of Alien Powers: The Pure Theory of Ideology, which I sent him. He graciously took the time to write a lengthy response, while adding the subtle rebuke that the study of law might be a better option for me than political philosophy. Ultimately, however, I was encouraged by the exchange. I was learning to rise to the challenge of engaging with ideas I stridently disagreed with in a forceful and reasoned way. And my response was taken seriously.
This formative experience has stayed with me ever since, convincing me that the idea that students are not capable of parrying and indeed thrusting against views that they find objectionable fails to treat students with the dignity that is their due as human beings.
Today’s “student-centered” classroom tends to emphasize safety above all other values. This takes the form of safe spaces, trigger or content warnings, and an exaggerated emphasis on students’ comfort that I suspect flows from the idea of the student-as-consumer.
I am in no way opposed to safety as a rule; however, I hold the view that if this erodes an equal emphasis on the importance of the classroom as a space in which students (and professors) can challenge and be challenged in turn, the university’s pedagogical mission is undermined. Too often, the emphasis on a vague notion of safety becomes inimical to learning – students thinking critically for themselves – which entails, among other things, being gently nudged out of one’s comfort zone.
So, my overarching conception of teaching philosophy is to create what I would call a safe space for dangerous conversations. I mean danger in the way Nietzsche uses it in The Gay Science, where he suggests that “The secret for harvesting from existence the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment” is to “live dangerously.” “Send your ships into uncharted seas!” and “Live at war with your peers and yourselves” are the injunctions that follow. To live thus is to embark on the voyage from the familiar to the strange, to constantly challenge others and oneself in a project of self-transcendence and self-transformation. Yet, as Nietzsche reminds us elsewhere, this charting of “new seas” can only be properly undertaken in a spirit of comity and friendship.
I want to be clear that by the idea of “safe spaces for dangerous conversations”, I do not mean spaces in which students from certain marginalized groups or communities – working class, Indigenous, LGBTQ+, ethnic minority, and so forth – are rendered vulnerable to attack by students from dominant or privileged groups. To the contrary. As someone who has experienced the brutalities of racism, mutual respect is the non-negotiable starting point for all of my teaching and public-engagement work.
My spaces require a relaxed environment characterized by good humour, and therefore a trusting context. Here students can be gradually exposed to, rather than sheltered from, ideas deeply at odds with core and deeply-held metaphysical, religious, political, and moral beliefs, without this entailing a threat to their innermost senses of selfhood. Being so challenged either provokes us to give up a previously held view or, indeed, helps us to better defend it. Either way, the effect is deeply intellectually enriching. This is the secular and rational equivalent to the monotheistic idea of a “test of faith.”
Being... challenged either provokes us to give up a previously held view or, indeed, helps us to better defend it. Either way, the effect is deeply intellectually enriching.
Such an approach to teaching and learning is antithetical to the idea of education understood narrowly as “training,” as the rote acquisition of skills or as a means to a job or career. Students may indeed need to acquire such skills in the course of their degrees at university, but ultimately this is secondary to the importance of their formation and development as persons and as citizens. Students who can speak and write more effectively, who are better able to ask critical questions of themselves as of others, will be better prepared for entry into any career. To put it slightly differently, the extrinsic or external goods of education follow from their intrinsic or internal goods, not the other way around.
When students are able to take more responsibility for their learning in this way, when the conversation seems to flow in its continuity rather than appearing episodic; when responsibility is shared between myself and the students, rather than being mine alone; when the endeavour is genuinely communitarian and collaborative rather than individualistic; an atmosphere of mutual respect and trust tends to prevail. Such an atmosphere is integral to the safety of the public realm in any robust democracy.
This piece was originally published in the August edition of Splinters.
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