Learning in Safe Spaces

I remember when my father taught me to drive. The first time I got behind the wheel of a vehicle and tried to figure out how to get my feet on the right pedals and work the gear shifter, we weren’t sitting in a high-powered sports car. We weren’t on the highway or in the middle of rush hour. We were in an old Ford Custom truck with three-on-the-tree (for those of you who know what that means), on a deserted dirt road that had fields on one side and woods on the other. I did my false starts and gear-grinding in that truck where the worst thing that could happen was that I might slide off into a ditch. No matter how badly I messed up, I wasn’t going to hurt myself or anyone else. After a good long time of practice, I learned how to listen to the engine, smoothly slide my feet from pedal to pedal, ease the shifter into gear, and start and stop on anything from flat to a good steep hill. I have since driven confidently on single-lane mountain roads and through a Boston rush hour in everything from a sports sedan to a moving truck, but it all began with the skills I developed through slow practice on those sunny afternoons.

Much the same is true about a lot of the important things I’ve become good at in life. I didn’t learn to swim by being tipped off the side of a boat in the middle of a shipping lane. I learned by splashing around in water wings with my parents keeping a watchful eye on me. I didn’t learn to cook by tossing together a souffle or a pig roast. I learned by mastering one recipe at a time with my mother teaching me why each ingredient mattered and what each step in the process accomplished. Pretty much anything difficult I’ve learned to do, anything where getting it wrong risked doing harm to myself or someone else, I’ve learned by starting slowly with someone helping me figure out what I was doing and how to do it safely and well.

The same is true of my academic education. Now, studying history is not like learning to drive or swim. If you do it badly or recklessly, you aren’t likely to pose an immediate risk of physical harm to yourself or anyone else, but history is powerful. So much of our sense of identity, both as individuals and as communities, is wrapped up in how we think about our past. Misunderstanding how and why things happened in the past can lead us to make seriously bad choices in the present with real and devastating consequences. My teachers and professors were as careful in how they constructed their lessons as my father was when he took me down that dirt road and handed me the keys. It wasn’t that they kept us away from the hard parts and the painful questions, any more than my father kept my hands off the shifter or my mother locked up the salt. It was that they made the classroom a place where everyone felt welcome to bring their own experiences and observations into the discussion, where we could get things wrong and still know that we were respected as students and scholars, and where we could tackle complicated issues a little piece at a time.

There is a lot of talk these days about “safe spaces” in college classrooms, and a lot of misunderstanding about what that term actually means. It doesn’t mean a space in which we avoid difficult ideas. It means a space in which we engage with difficult ideas carefully, thoughtfully, and purposefully. Learning to grapple with challenging and painful ideas and with opinions radically different from our own is an essential part of a good education, but these are not things we learn effectively in a free-for-all. Part of my role as a professor is to be careful about how we engage with difficult ideas, the same care I exercise in choosing what texts my students will read and what assignments I will have them write.

That care includes meeting my students where they are, both as scholars and as human beings. It includes respecting the fact that everyone in my classroom is a unique individual with their own talents and burdens. It means recognizing that what is easy for some of my students to do will be exhausting for others. History is a powerful thing. How we think about the past has enormous consequences for the present, and the weight of those consequences falls more heavily on some people than on others. If I am to teach all my students effectively, my classroom must be a place where everyone feels welcome and knows that they will be taken seriously.

The history of the ancient Mediterranean may seem so distant and so tame that nothing arising from its study could possibly harm anyone, but the cultural authority of Greece and Rome has often been invoked in modern times to justify declaring certain groups of people outside the bounds of civilization. The detritus of past and present racism, sexism, anti-immigrant bigotry, and other prejudices still clings to the history of Greco-Roman antiquity. Even students with no ill intent may unintentionally poke at raw wounds in other students’ lives. It is my role as professor to know when we need to slow the discussion down, peel back the historiographical layers with care, and acknowledge the discomfort that comes not only from having our own wounds poked but also from realizing that other peoples’ wounds are not the same as our own.

Some people are fond of claiming that there are no safe spaces in the world and that colleges should prepare students for the harsh realities awaiting them by being equally unsafe. On one hand, this claim is far from true. The world is absolutely full of safe spaces for those of us who happen to have been born into the right demographic and socioeconomic groups. Ideas that unsettle the powerful are frequently pushed out of public view. My students who will have the hardest time finding a safe space in the world are already perfectly well aware of this fact and need no further education on that score.

But it is true that one of the functions of a college education is preparing our students to engage intelligently and productively with a world that will not always respect their histories or give them the space to think critically and carefully. Staying thoughtful in the midst of a shouting match is a difficult skill, and like any other difficult skill it is best learned with careful practice under a teacher’s guidance in places where the cost of making a mistake is minimal. Whether it’s rush hour traffic or the tumble of political discourse, we gain the skills and confidence to handle unsafe spaces by practicing in safe ones. I will do the best I can to make sure that my classroom is always a safe space for my students.

Here there be opinions!

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