The University of Chicago made national headlines last week as student Dean Jay Ellison boldly affirmed his institution’s stance that ‘safe spaces’ have no place on campus. Twenty miles away at Northwestern University, where I’ll be starting this fall, President Morton Schapiro instead firmly pledged his unyielding support to these ‘safe spaces’, such as the Black House, Catholic Center, and Hillel.
But in reality, don’t the universities just want the same thing? A campus climate where everyone feels welcome and free to hold their own opinions? As I looked deeper into both officials’ arguments, I realized that perhaps there is a viable middle ground and a practical way to reach this ideal atmosphere on college campuses.
Here’s my analysis:
Several times I've heard safe spaces compared to cocoons, a place of safety and isolation. While the sometimes brutal nature of our society does at times necessitate the separation found in safe spaces (and cocoons), it's just as important to recognize the second part, the true function of a cocoon. That is, to prepare the larva to go out into the world, as brand-new, brilliant butterfly, confident, understanding, tolerant, and morally sound.
By using this second part, safe spaces should strive for an ideal world in which there is no need for these cocoons whatsoever. A world where people are not offended by what happens around them, because they’re strong enough to face the world, and the world is a bit kinder to them, too. A world where the butterflies that emerge from campus safe spaces serve as ambassadors for understanding, freedom, and forgiveness.
It all seems to boil down to the age-old debate over pleasure and satisfaction - a safe space can’t be merely an isolated place to temporarily remedy the problem and offer pleasure in the moment, instead it needs to offer the nurturing and building of character necessary to create satisfaction and strength for the future.
For example, I'm a Catholic, and I plan to spend much of my time at Northwestern’s Sheil Catholic Center not as a crutch or to isolate myself, but in an effort to better prepare myself to live out my faith in a more genuine, grounded, loving, and universal way. Theoretically, if I ever did endure serious psychological or emotional distress in college because of my faith, I’d immediately go to the Catholic Center to be consoled. However, in addition to this healing I should also be strengthened and empowered to face the world head-on in the future and stand up for what I believe. Like...a butterfly, proudly displaying its colors, encouraging others to do the same.
The cocoon that would protect and care for me in the face of stress and suffering just as importantly would enable me to be stronger in the future. It would allow me to go back into the world prepared to work against prejudice and injustice, and in doing so work towards the ideal campus atmosphere.
So what I think Chicago’s two most prominent universities are forgetting is that it’s a multi-step process, and safe spaces serve more than one purpose. The comforting resource readily available to those in distress, valued by Northwestern, also must prepare empower its members to live and function in an unafraid world of ‘academic freedom’, which the University of Chicago seeks.
This kind of safe space, one of both healing and strengthening, is one I think even Jay Ellison can accept.