Making Ourselves at Home: College Students and Safe Spaces

We’re at it again. Citing security concerns, authorities at Middlebury College cancelled a lecture by Polish philosophy professor and political figure Ryszard Legutko. To be sure, he was later offered an impromptu forum in a political science seminar, which proceeded without further disturbance. This follows an incident earlier this semester, when students at Beloit College deplatformed security entrepreneur Erik Prince. Both these recent events reminded me of the heated confrontation in 2015 between Yale students and Nicholas Christakis, then Master of Yale’s Stillman College.

At Yale and Beloit, students evoked the image of their college as a home. Beloit student Rose Johnson “considers the (primarily) residential college her home and ‘wouldn’t feel right’ about allowing or listening to someone such as Prince in her own space.” One of the Yale students said this to Christakis: “[A]s master, it is your job to create a place of comfort and home for the students that live in Silliman.” At Middlebury, it was political science professor Matthew Dickinson who invoked the language of home: when there was no public event at which students could protest, “[t]hey lost that opportunity to express that feeling of being violated in their own home, and that’s their right here as students.”

This is an interesting turn of phrase that deserves a few moments of consideration.

Now, it is true that college residences (when did we stop calling them dorms?) now have many more of the comforts of home than they did back in the 70s, when I was a student. My daughter, for example, has enjoyed two years of on campus apartment life, with full kitchens, washers and dryers, not to mention bathrooms shared (at most) with one other person. And don’t get me started about the wretched excess of campus residence decorating, with stores like Ikea and Bed Bath and Beyond only too happy to drain the bank accounts of doting parents.

Thus one source of the home trope comes from college marketing and branding efforts: we offer students a personal space with luxuries and amenities that can compete with what they have at home. Students and their helicopter parents find this attractive and reassuring, something I see all the time as I interact virtually and in person with my fellow college parents. Indeed, I’m tempted to argue that with the ubiquity of the smartphone, the emotional or psychic distance between home and college is greatly diminished, if not effaced altogether. In some sense, our students are always “at home.” In terms familiar to readers of Plato’s Republic, it’s almost as if Cephalus never leaves the room.

But I don’t think that a marketing effort attuned to the tenor of the times fully accounts for the force and import of the statements I mentioned. I think that there are at least two other factors in play. The first is the overwhelming role played in campus discourse by identity politics: not only is the personal the political, but only the personal is the political. Students have taken Thomas Hobbes’s observation that to disagree is to dishonor to its illogical extreme. Every disagreement is taken as a personal assault. The second factor is connected with this: because of the way personal identity has colonized and overwhelmed the political, the most powerful language students have for discussing their “public square” is the inappropriate and impoverished private language of home. Aristotle would call them out for their failure to distinguish between the household and the polis. Of course, since thinking about this kind of challenge from a discreditable source might make them uncomfortable, they might, so to speak, show him the door.

Nevertheless, I’m here to tell you that college isn’t and shouldn’t be home in the sense that some at Middlebury, Beloit, and Yale mean it. At Beloit, Rose Johnson seems to think that safety and security were associated with home. Well, yes and no. The state exists to protect our persons and property everywhere, and we can make our homes even more secure, with alarm systems, dogs, and (dare I say it?) guns, but I don’t think that’s what she has in mind. “My friends,” she said, “did not feel safe with [Erik Prince] on campus.” They were threatened or unsettled by his presence and the ideas he represented, not by anything that the state or ordinary home security measures are intended to counteract.

To be sure, in my actual home, I’m entitled to exclude, not just predators, but others who disturb my comfort and peace. People handing out religious tracts, door-to-door solicitors, and most of those walking the neighborhood for a political campaign will all feel the wrath of my very yappy chiweenie. I want to spend time with, and only with, the people I love. I can shut the door on and exclude unwanted voices and views.

But that is not and cannot be college life. First of all, each college is “home” to hundreds or thousands of people. If some can exclude for the sake of comfort and repose, so can others, which would ultimately exclude virtually everyone, except for the pizza delivery guy, though I suppose that we’d have to check on the charitable contributions of the pizza joint before we opened our gates.

Second, despite the best efforts of dorm room decorators, college isn’t primarily about reproducing the comforts of home, at substantial expense, as far as possible from the watchful eyes of the parents. If that were all it was, then it would probably be easier to tell my kids to get a job and get an apartment so that they can include and exclude whomever they want in and from their new “homes.” You don’t need majors, courses, and extracurricular programming for that. But you do need those things if you’re trying to educate students, who will inevitably feel uncomfortable as old, cherished notions are challenged, their minds are “expanded,” and they’re asked to take on tasks and tackle problems unlike any they have hitherto encountered.

I don’t mean to argue that higher education is all about deconstructing master narratives and creating a counterculture to unsettle the bourgeois notion of the middle class. It certainly isn’t or shouldn’t be about institutionally pursuing a certain social justice agenda as if we know, once and for all, what justice is and who all the villains are. But if, as Socrates claimed, the unexamined life isn’t worth living for a human being, the examined life likely begins in a certain kind of unsettled discomfort and persists in that discomfort for quite some time.

We do our students a major disservice if we lead them to believe that their college is such a home that they’re entitled to banish anything that disturbs their dogmatic slumbers. We should rather remind them of the rare opportunity they have to think, to learn, to challenge and be challenged. They can return home anytime they want, but they left it for this. And unless we insist upon the central importance of college life as induction into the “republic of letters,” we have no compelling alternative vision to offer them. If a college education is merely instrumental, aimed at enhancing one’s earning potential, then the private vision will triumph by default.

We should offer our students a different way of thinking, one that makes college less about private comfort and more about citizenship in the public square: as we encounter and argue with people who have opinions different from our own, we learn not only the strengths and weaknesses of our own positions (perhaps altering them in the face of persuasive alternatives), but also how to engage respectfully with those with whom we disagree. Thus conceived, the college is a locus of republican civic education. Like Tocqueville’s New England township, the college could be the school of our freedom. In their letter of protest, this generation of Middlebury students gestures in the direction of this vision, but they’re too seduced by the vision of homelike comfort and security, and too enthralled by identity politics, to understand what it really means and requires of them.

Reader Discussion

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on May 21, 2019 at 09:22:35 am

Just as Arabs see the middle east as their home and not a multicultural society, so young people see college as their home and not a multicultural society (intellectually-diverse society). And in the same way that Arabs can't feel at home in the middle east when there's a democracy in their midst, so young people can't feel at home at college when there's a conservative in their midst. Young people find conservative speakers at college just as offensive as Arabs find Israel's presence in the middle east.

Remember, before going to college, young people have just spent four years in high school where all their teachers think exactly the same and they're never exposed to any conservative or libertarian points of view. (We were never even told what the second amendment or tenth amendment said in civics class!)

They expect college to be that way too. It's supposed to be a secular sanctuary where everyone's a progressive, in the same way that you don't expect to meet non-christians at church or Jews in the middle east. They expect college to be a place where there never hear anyone argue with them just like you expect no one to argue with you at church or in the middle east.

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on May 21, 2019 at 10:23:25 am

Remember, we're told in middle school and high school that we need school uniforms so no one wears a Rush Limbaugh shirt (or NRA shirt) or MAGA hat. We're told we don't need uniforms in college because there's no one in college who would ever wear a Rush shirt or MAGA hat.

So if we see someone at college wearing such a thing, or talking like a conservative, we assume that we've been invaded by human cancer and that we need to act like the college's immune system and expel them from campus as soon as possible.

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on May 21, 2019 at 10:36:50 am

I can confirm that at orientation they tell us that the student body is the university's cultural immune system that can fight off the cancer of conservatism and keep our secular sanctuary healthy.

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on May 21, 2019 at 13:01:24 pm

Back in the early sixties when I was in sevcondary school, I was exposed to various ideas. Teachers in both English and Latin slipped in all the elements of the Trivium. My junior year US history involved looking at many of the dissident ideas that helped form the evnetual shape of the Republic--we were encouraged to read. In college at the University of Denver my English courses were on modern writing and we read a variety of views. Even my social science courses were fluid enough that my extracurricular readings were not discouraged and I came out a little off center to the right.My adviser, a notable progressive who was occasionally irritated by my writing, remarked that we all read the same literature and yet his students, even the good ones, were about as likely to end up republican as democrat. I dropped econ 1 because the gta who taught the class was a doctrinaire Marxist and yet my professor in American ideas was a registered and active Democrat who had voted for Goldwater in 64. I occasionally had a drink or two with him in later years and he encouraged me in reading the classics plus Locke, Smith and the medievaiists.

My son, having his career interrupted in October of 1990 to help move supplies from various locations to to a small Arab country and came home to kick around in the employment market. His readings in the great books, science and history did not lead to a degree, but he is respected in his field. His judgment is often better than mine. He would not do well in the typical classroom and the left would ostracise him but he would not step down. He does not need a "safe space" although he scans a room when he enters and generally sits with his back to a wall.

I would point out to the ideologues at Berkely that Mario Savio would be puzzled at the demand for safe spaces and limits on debate and discussion. I admit I feel more comfortable working iron than arguing politics--but working with tools gives me the confidence to debate becaus I have actual skills that i learned from my elders.

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Earl Haehl
on May 21, 2019 at 13:15:00 pm

In college, we're taught post-modernism, the idea that any statement that increases support for a progressive cause (like gun prohibition) is true and that any statement that decreases support for a progressive cause is false. College is about teaching us those true ideas--ideas that increase support for progressive causes, and silencing false ideas--ideas that decrease support for progressive causes.

So we're taught that conservatives are literally spreading lies when they talk. When we silence them we're literally guarding truth--the purpose of a liberal-arts/well-rounded education. Under post-modernism, conservatives don't have different points-of-view, they are literally lying by decreasing support for progressive causes. That is, conservatives are undermining the purpose of college--to realize the progressive agenda.

Just as you wouldn't allow science-deniers on campus, so progressives can't allow conservatives on campus because they're undermining the purpose of college--to increase support for progressive causes like gun prohibition.

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on May 21, 2019 at 14:11:12 pm

I read with interest Joe’s essay because decades ago I made an argument on my campus about the legitimacy of banning hate speech on the grounds that in order for the residential college to function as an intellectual community students needed to feel at home on campus (even commuters). I was prompted to do so by having seen, “Go home nigger,” written on the wall inside the elevator of the university library and , “Die faggot,” carved(!) into the wooden door of the office of the gay and lesbian student union on campus. There are words and phrases that have assaultive impact, as the fighting words doctrine acknowledged. Students do have a right in their home to be free of such assaults. OTOH exposure to controversial IDEAS is at the heart of what it means to be part of an intellectual community. On this point Joe and I are in full agreement,

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Leslie F Goldstein
on May 21, 2019 at 14:51:58 pm


The point is that "fighting words" and "hate speech" are not the same thing.
Telling people not to call each other derogatory slurs (fighting words) is not the same thing as telling people they can't oppose abortion or affirmative action or gay marriage or the fairness doctrine or gun-control or union dues or deny the holocaust (hate speech).

"Hate speech" is anything that progressives disagree with or disapprove of. Just look at the terms and conditions of any social media website. They don't just ban calling each other slurs.

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Whatta O'Toole
on May 21, 2019 at 15:41:19 pm

When a woman hears "outlaw abortion", they hear the "c" word. So they want to treat people who oppose abortion (hate speech) the same as people who call women the "c" word (fighting words)--even though anti-abortion people would never use the "c" word. In fact, they want to outlaw abortion because they love women and want more women born.

When a black person hears "outlaw affirmative action", they hear the "n" word. So they want to treat people who oppose affirmative action the same as people who use the "n" word, even though anti-affirmative-action people would never use the "n" word. In fact they think so highly of blacks that they think can compete evenly with whites and succeed just as often.

When a homosexual hears "outlaw gay marriage", they hear the "f" word. So they want to treat people who oppose gay marriage the same as people who say the "f" word, even though anti-gay-marriage people would never use that "f" word.

When a Muslim hears "outlaw Sharia law", they hear the "k" word. So they treat people who oppose Sharia Law the same way they treat people who use the "k" word, even though anti-Sharia Law people would never use the "k" word. In fact people oppose Sharia Law precisely because they want Muslims to finally be treated with the dignity and respect they will never receive under Sharia Law.

Nearly everyone banned from speaking on campus isn't banned because they use derogatory slurs, but because they express conservative or libertarian points of view. Do you really think Ben Shapiro or Candace Owens was prevented from speaking on campus because they were calling people names?

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on May 21, 2019 at 17:00:27 pm

I already said that I agree w/Joe’s essay on the inappropriateness of any college campus attempting to ban promulgation of any idea because students feel discomfort. I am making the point that there are other word-related concerns linked to the notion that the campus is the home of the students.

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Leslie Goldstein
on May 21, 2019 at 17:36:37 pm

But it seems to me that almost all of your concerns are covered by more or less standard speech regulations permitted by the "fighting words" doctrine. I'm not sure that we need the private and exclusionary language of 'home" to do the work you seem to want it to do. We could accomplish the same things with a robust understanding of civil conduct in the public square, i.e., with a conception of decent and respectful republican citizenship.

I suppose that we could get there through a consideration of the dimension of hospitality connected with the notion of home. As a host, I'm required to be hospitable to strangers, and as a guest, I'm obliged not to abuse my host's hospitality.

But I think the language of republican citizenship offers a more robust obligation to be civil and to entertain disagreement.

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Joseph M. Knippenberg
on May 21, 2019 at 17:51:53 pm

In all the campuses i've been on, I've never been to one that didn't harshly punish people for using the "n" word or any other such slur. Please name the universities that don't punish people for using slurs.

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Big Sur
on May 21, 2019 at 17:59:36 pm

Name the college where tenured professors aren't fired for using the "n" word!

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Phake Knewss
on May 21, 2019 at 19:03:14 pm

"A movie up for sale at the Cannes Film Festival’s Market features a poster that shows Melania Trump carrying Donald Trump’s severed head."


Do you think they could've done this during the Obama administration?

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Breit Bartholomew
on May 22, 2019 at 12:06:52 pm

This month I retired as a community college adjunct (of no status whatsoever), after some 31 years teaching in private and public schools.

I was raised on the farm in situational poverty.

I spent 18 months in Viet-Nam (with a side-trip to Cambodia).

I worked nights (double shifts on the weekends) to put myself through university because the G.I. Bill was inadequate and unreliable.

There is nothing any keyboard warrior can tell me about the evils of Communism; the stench of the Vietnamese and Cambodians murdered by the VC and Khmer Rouge is always with me.

Do not presume to stereotype me

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on May 22, 2019 at 15:14:59 pm

The conversation about higher education in America is absurd. Small liberal arts colleges represent a tiny fraction of the university-student population and in no way have a monopoly on excellence. The solution is to be involved.

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on May 22, 2019 at 17:11:49 pm

"Students do have a right in their home to be free of such assaults"

And that says it all!

Students are NOT at home at university; nor are they to expect, as both at home and in grade and high school, to have their "self-esteem" constantly affirmed.

A bad paraphrase here may suffice:

"As a child, I thought as a child; when I became a man, I put away the thin[king] of a child."

University, is, or OUGHT to be an environment where one willingly, no, gleefully accepts challenges - both intellectual and ideological.

Enough of this "safe space", "feel at home" nonsense.

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Guttenburgs Press and Brewery
on May 22, 2019 at 22:32:41 pm

Who’s talking about self-esteem?. Not I.

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Leslie Goldstein
on May 22, 2019 at 22:34:19 pm

Mine, U of Delaware. I used in many times , always in quotations. Never got in the least trouble.

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Leslie Goldstein
on May 22, 2019 at 22:35:21 pm

Fair enough.

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Leslie Goldstein
on May 23, 2019 at 16:55:53 pm

No, BUT autistic students may be *fired* for requesating a "fist bump"

How "home-y" is that?


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Guttenburgs Press and Brewery
on May 25, 2019 at 11:52:31 am

And now for a somewhat different, but related take on modern trends, there is this


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Guttenburgs Press and Brewery
on May 29, 2019 at 03:24:27 am

Hey! I can shut the door on and exclude unwanted voices and views.

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Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.