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.