NANNY STATE : How political correctness rules in America’s student ‘safe spaces’
A student backlash against hearing words and ideas that oppose their own, citing emotional “trauma”, is changing the culture of the American campus writes Ruth Sherlock, US Editor from Harvard University
As the law professor prepared for her class on sexual assault, she opened her emails to find a strange request: could she give assurances that the content of the class would not be included in the end-of-year exam, her students asked?
They were concerned there might be victims of sexual assault among their classmates, they said. Anyone in that position could be traumatised at being confronted with such material in the exam hall.
Across the United States, lecturers have received similar messages from students demanding that modules of academic study – ranging from legal topics to well-known works of literature – be scrubbed from exams, and sometimes from the syllabus altogether.
Jeannie Suk, a professor at Harvard Law School, which numbers President Barack Obama among its many notable alumni, cited an example where a student had asked a colleague “not to use the word ‘violate’ – as in ‘does this conduct violate the law’ – because the term might trigger distress”.
Far from the bra-burning, devil-may-care attitudes at universities in the Sixties and Seventies, today’s generation of American students increasingly appears to yearn for a campus ruled by dogmatic political correctness, in which faculty members assume the role of parents more than purveyors of academic rigour.
The lexicon of college has changed: students now speak about “micro-aggressions”, “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces”.
The notion of the “safe space” first emerged to describe a place of refuge for people exposed to racial prejudice or sexism. But the phrase has changed meaning to the point where now it often implies protection from “exposure to ideas that make one uncomfortable”, according to Nadine Strossen, a prominent law professor and former head of the American Civil Liberties Union.
At Brown University – like Harvard, one of the eight elite Ivy League universities – the New York Times reported students set up a “safe space” that offered calming music, cookies, Play-Doh and a video of frolicking puppies to help students cope with a discussion on how colleges should handle sexual assault.
A Harvard student described in the university newspaper attending a “safe space” complete with “massage circles” that was designed to help students have open conversations.
This hesitancy to engage in the dialogue of debate – and, in its most extreme form, the sense that hearing opposing opinions can cause damage to the psyche – has seeped from the campus to the classroom.
About two years ago, Prof Suk said her Harvard students began reacting “noticeably differently” to lectures on sexual assault that make up part of her criminal law class. “There would be some element of nervousness about approaching the discussion that was more pronounced than before,” she said.
And there were curious questions from the students: “’Why did you choose to show this film’ or ‘Why did you choose to assign this reading without giving us a warning of what they contained?’” Prof Suk said.
The introduction of “trigger warnings” may have been designed to protect people who have suffered serious trauma, but critics fear they are now a means to prevent the free discussion in class that is an essential part of academic learning. “The language of trauma, which started as a term to describe extreme events, started to be used much more loosely,” Prof Suk said. “So trauma is now colloquially used to mean lots of different things including non-extreme, even everyday events.
In this new environment, lecturers in some English departments have started to warn of the potentially traumatic effects of reading material.
Literary classics are now considered potentially “unsafe” for students to read. Reading lists at some universities are being adapted to come with warnings printed beside certain titles: The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald (Trigger: suicide, domestic abuse and graphic violence) and Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (Trigger: suicidal tendencies).
In some colleges, professors have been known to tell students that if a book makes them feel unsafe, they are allowed to skim it, or skip it altogether, a Harvard Law professor told this newspaper.
Lecturers unhappy with this state of affairs blame the US department of education for allowing student angst to morph into a tyranny that has many professors running scared.
The department of education’s office of civil rights, the OCR, recently enforced professional misconduct policies designed to deal with issues such as the sexual harassment of students on campus. But that policy, said Anita Levy, senior programme officer at the American Association of University Professors, is being misapplied in some cases to cover charges that are not clearly related.
The policy has led to a sharp increase in dismissals, and in some cases students have the power to bring about the sacking of professors who have committed the most minor of offences. A professor of English and film studies at San Bernardino Valley College in California was punished for requiring his class to write essays defining pornography, according to Ms Strossen.
This summer, Louisiana State University sacked a professor of early childhood education because she swore and used humour about sex when she was teaching about sexuality, often to capture her students’ attention.