Safe Spaces vs. Sacred Spaces

As I am sure you are all aware, a few weeks ago, John Ellison, the Dean of Students in the College at the University of Chicago, sent a letter out to all of our incoming freshman in which he described some of the things that they should expect--and not expect--to encounter as students in the College. "One of the University of Chicago's defining characteristics," he told them, "is our commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression.... Members of our community are encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn, without fear of censorship. Civility and mutual respect are vital to all of us, and freedom of expression does not mean the freedom to harass or threaten others. You will find that we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion, and even disagreement. At times this may challenge you and even cause discomfort."

Not, arguably, all that remarkable a claim, you might think. Of course our students should expect to feel challenged, possibly even uncomfortable at times, they have been admitted to one of the top universities in the country, the university where, as it says on all the t-shirts, "fun comes to die." But there was more. "Our commitment to academic freedom," Dean Ellison went on, "means that we do not support so-called 'trigger warnings,' we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual 'safe spaces' where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own." The response from the nation at large (who knew so many were paying attention to us?) was sharp and swift, none sharper and swifter (at least in academia's terms) than the letter that 150 of my fellow faculty members signed and published in the campus student newspaper during Orientation week in which they distanced themselves from the Dean's take on things.

"Those of us who have signed this letter," they told the students, "have a variety of opinions about requests for trigger warnings and safe spaces. We may also disagree as to whether free speech is ever legitimately interrupted by concrete pressures of the political. That is as it should be. But let there be no mistake: such requests often touch on substantive, ongoing issues of bias, intolerance and trauma that affect our intellectual exchanges. To start a conversation by declaring that such requests are not worth making is an affront to the basic principles of liberal education and participatory democracy." They went on to talk about how important it was for the work that we do in the classroom to be conducted in an atmosphere of mutual respect and to a commitment to learning from "a wealth of histories and experiences--to more discussion, not less; to openness, not closure." After which they offered a brief history of the history of "safe spaces" in "gay, civil rights, and feminist efforts of the mid-20th century to create places protected from quite real forces of violence and intimidation.... It would be naïve," they acknowledged (or insisted?), "to think that the University of Chicago is immune from social problems. Yet the administration [that is, our dean of students, who is an administrative dean, but also our college dean, who is a member of the faculty; Dean Ellison's letter was meant as a cover letter for Dean Boyer's book] confusingly disconnects 'safe spaces' it supports (see the list of mentoring services on the College's own website) from 'intellectual safe spaces' that it does not, as if issues of power and vulnerability stop at the classroom door."

I did not sign this letter. Not because I do not think my colleagues did anything inappropriate as such in publishing it--quite the reverse! They would not be University of Chicago faculty if they didn't get up in arms about something the administration says at least twice a decade. That, as our very own Dean John Boyer has chronicled at length in his recently published history of the College, is what we at Chicago do: fight with the administration. But likewise we argue with ourselves, sometimes at length, not always as openly as perhaps we should. I was happy when I saw the posts streaming on my Facebook feed about Dean Ellison's letter. I was afraid when I saw the email sent to my department letting me know about the faculty's letter and inviting me to sign. I was even more afraid when I read the names on the list of those who approved the faculty letter, among them colleagues in my own field of medieval studies, many of them colleagues in my own department of history. What would they think of me if I didn't sign? I am scrolling through the list of names again now; it has grown since the letter was originally circulated. My hearts sinks just a little bit when I see the name of someone I respect; I breathe easier when there is a name missing. What if, I asked myself when I first saw the letter, I just pretended I was too engrossed in my research to have known about it? I am on leave this quarter and next, not attending faculty meetings or functions on campus. Nobody would ever know that I had seen the letter and refused--not just neglected, but refused--to sign. Oh, look, there is my upstairs neighbor's name; what if she reads through the list of names and mine isn't there? Oh, and there is the colleague whose office is next door to mine, whom I saw only a week ago or so in the grocery store. There are several of our MacArthur fellows, three of them in my department. There is another of the colleagues whom I respect the most.... Oh, look, there's an Editor's Note: "The online edition of this article will be continually updated as more faculty members sign the letter." I will have no excuse come Spring when I am back on campus, will I?

If I am this frightened at the thought of disagreeing with my colleagues--me, a tenured faculty member--think how our students must feel if they agree with the Deans and disagree with their teachers on issues of "power and vulnerability" and what should be done about them. Yes, we're talking political correctness here, even at the University of Chicago. Seriously, my colleagues think that the administration is creating a hostile environment for our students by telling them that they should expect to be challenged and made uncomfortable over the course of their studies? I should hope so! Otherwise what are they coming here for? College is not therapy. It is more like a monastery (or should be--wouldn't everybody be better able to study if we were all segregated by sex and expected to be celibate?): a schola for training the soul. And training the soul is terrifying work.

This is the way Benedict of Nursia described the purpose of the monastery in the prologue to his "rule for beginners" on which the Benedictine tradition was based:
And so we are going to establish a school for the service of the Lord. In founding it we hope to introduce nothing harsh or burdensome. But if a certain strictness results from the dictates of equity for the amendment of vices or the preservation of charity, do not be at once dismayed and fly from the way of salvation, whose entrance cannot but be narrow (Matthew 7:14). For as we advance in the religious life and in faith, our hearts expand and we run the way of God's commandments with unspeakable sweetness of love. Thus, never departing from His school, but persevering in the monastery according to His teaching until death, we may by patience share in the sufferings of Christ (1 Peter 4:13) and deserve to have a share also in His kingdom.
You will say: "But colleges and universities aren't monasteries; they are institutions of higher learning, not communities of prayer." To which I would respond: "But they are; where do you think all that higher learning comes from?" Here is where I think we, as professors, have done our students a terrible disservice in preparing them for what it means to engage in the kind of learning that we do--or ought to be doing--on our university campuses. To judge from the outrage that has been sparked (should I say, triggered?) over the past year or so by such events as Milo Yiannopoulos's "Dangerous Faggot Tour" or Ben Shapiro's speeches on the importance of diversity of thought and free speech, our students come to campus woefully ill-prepared to encounter arguments that run counter to the things that others in our on-going national conversations about race, class, and gender have said. In part, this is because their teachers themselves do not know these counter-arguments, at least to judge from the responses that I get from my colleagues if I even mention that I may have read about them, never mind taken the time to find out what these dangerous speakers actually say. (Pro tip: it isn't what you read in the mainstream media. As I told Dean Boyer when I wrote to thank him for the book that he sent the students about academic freedom at the University of Chicago, maybe it's because I'm a medievalist, but I do dislike people being labeled heretics without a proper inquisition. Plus, I'm a medievalist. More or less on a daily basis I am wrestling with the way in which the history of Europe has been distorted by, as my colleagues would put it, "concrete pressures of the political". Don't even get me started on Marx.)

Golden Circle
But the problem, I think, goes deeper than this, which is why our students are feeling so anxious and, yes, triggered by some of the things that we ask them to read, talk, and think about in our classrooms and lecture halls. (What happens on campus outside of the classroom or lecture hall is a topic for another post; bear with me.) Bluntly, we aren't teaching them. (Okay, not me, I think I am, at least I hope I am, but I am trying to be inclusive here.) Sure, we assign them reading to do and problem sets to solve, we ask them questions in our discussion sections, we critique their writing and supervise their research. But these are just exercises, like standing and singing the Psalms over and over for the whole of one's life, as Benedict's monks did. To put it in Simon Sinek's terms (see circle), they are the WHAT of intellectual labor: the things that we do as scholars, whether writing papers, conducting experiments, giving talks to our colleagues, and so forth. Arguably, for most of us, this is the only level at which we engage with our students' encounter with the materials of our respective fields. We assign them things to read or problems to work and then test them on their ability to manipulate similar materials according to the models we have given them. (This, by the by, is why we have so much scholarship that simply takes the dominant modes of interpretation--by now in the humanities and social sciences almost exclusively "race, class, and gender"--and "applies" them over and over again; we are stuck at the WHAT.)

Occasionally, although even at Chicago, less and less so (ask me about the BA requirements in my department that my colleagues just voted on), we force ourselves to engage with the HOW: training our students not just to practice manipulating texts or data according to the models we have given them, but getting them to look at intellectual labor (I am using the term here in its monastic sense, the labora of the cloister and scriptorium as opposed to the ora of the choir) as itself a kind of practice that makes certain kinds of demands, above all, on the imagination, but also on the ego, as anyone who has ever faced the terrors of writer's block knows. (Go here for tips on how to deal with this.) Almost never, and I do mean never, do we address the question at the center of Sinek's Golden Circle: the WHY of what we do, whether as teachers or scholars. This, I would argue, is what is most triggering to our students. Why? Because the WHY question is not something you can answer in terms of skills or employability or credentials or any of the other external measures by which we gauge our effectiveness as teachers and our students' ability to learn. WHY should students spend tens of thousands of dollars being tested in particular subjects so as to gain the credential of a BA? Nobody--at least, nobody in my nearly thirty years in academia--ever asks. WHY? Because asking this question requires us to do far more than perform well on a test or get an article accepted through peer review (the professors' equivalent of a mid-term exam). Because asking this question opens us up and lays us bare before God.

Tolkien, as always, put it best. Towards the end of his life, Tolkien received a letter from Camilla Unwin, the daughter of his publisher, asking him for help with a school project on the theme: "What is the purpose of life?" Tolkien responded (late, as always): "What does the question really mean?"[1] Such questions, he argued, are "only really useful when they refer to the conscious purposes or objects of human beings, or to the uses of things they design and make." The value of all other things, those things not designed and made by human beings, lies not in their utility to people, but in themselves: "they ARE, they would exist even if we did not. But since we do exist one of their functions is to be contemplated by us," and given that we are human--that is, curious--we are prone in our contemplation of things other than ourselves to ask the question HOW they came to have the patterns and structures that they do, which then brings us to the question WHY all other such things exist. "But WHY in this sense, implying reasons and motives, can only refer to a MIND. Only a Mind can have purposes in any way or degree akin to human purposes," which brings us to the Question: "Is there a God, a Creator-Designer, a Mind to which our minds are akin (being derived from it) so that It is intelligible to us in part. With that we come to religion and the moral ideas that proceed from it." Without belief in such a personal God, Tolkien contends, "the question: 'What is the purpose of life?' is unaskable and unanswerable. To whom or what would you address the question?" But since (he continues) there are things in the Universe who have developed with minds to ask such questions, it is likely that if the Universe were to reply it would say something like this: "I am as I am. There is nothing you can do about it. You may go on trying to find out what I am, but you will never succeed. And why you want to know, I do not know. Perhaps the desire to know for the mere sake of knowledge is related to the prayers that some of you address to what you call God. At their highest these seem simply to praise Him for being, as He is, and for making what He has made, as He has made it."

This, for Tolkien, was the purpose of life, the only purpose life could conceivably have, given that "purpose" implies by definition "being made":
to increase according to our capacity our knowledge of God by all the means we have, and to be moved by it to praise and thanks. To do as we say in the Gloria in Excelsis: Laudamus te...  We praise you, we call you holy, we worship you, we proclaim your glory, we thank you for the greatness of your splendour. And in moments of exaltation we may call on all created things to join in our chorus, speaking on their behalf, as is done in Psalm 148, and in The Song of the Three Children in Daniel II [3:57-88, 56, The Benedicite]: PRAISE THE LORD...all mountains and hills, all orchards and forests, all things that creep and birds on the wing.
Such praises, I am sure you are unsurprised to hear, have little to no place in the modern university--but, I would argue, our students sense them nevertheless. They come to us hungry for meaning, hungry for understanding, hungry for some sense of WHAT IT ALL MEANS. And we feed them scraps, the leavings of centuries upon centuries of human inquiry into the workings of our souls and of the universe as creatures of God, disconnected from the WHY that originally gave them purpose. Because, of course, for most of the centuries of the existence of universities (and before them, monasteries) the whole point of academic inquiry was to prepare for the encounter with God in the choir. The labora was never intended as an end in itself. Rather, it was the discipline which the monks and scholars practiced so as to be able to endure the great mystery of the choir: the encounter with the Creator of Heaven and earth in all his awe-inspiring love. This was the reason that Benedict provided the rule that he did, with all of its recommendations for how the monks should schedule their labors and prayers: such encounters with the sacred are terrifying, difficult for mere mortals to withstand without going mad.

Our students are going mad. We have brought them into a place where we systematically expose them to the terrors of existence, its beauty and tragedy, its greatness and profundity, and we give them no training in how to prepare themselves for this encounter, in large part because we as teachers have no training ourselves. How does one train for the encounter with God? Perhaps we might start by acknowledging that we should.


[1] Letter 310 To Camilla Unwin, 20 May 1969, in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter with Christopher Tolkien (1981).


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