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Is “Safe” really Safe?

This week our local Big Ten university, Northwestern, jumped into the national spotlight when its student paper, The Daily Northwestern , apologized for covering a student protest in a way the protestors found “harmful” i.e., not safe. These “harmful” acts included reporters at the paper taking pictures of the protestors and contacting them for comments. In other words the student newspaper at one of America’s top universities apologized for performing basic journalism.
This wasn’t a surprise. Northwestern administrators, following the trend on campuses across the country, have focused on creating emotionally “safe” spaces for students.
This culture encourages activism, but shields students from responsibility for their own emotional well-being. And it isn’t something that starts in college. Increasingly students arrive on college campuses expecting protection because they were steeped in it in high school, often under the rubric of “Social Emotional Learning.” Such curricula focus on “educating the whole child” beyond reading, writing and arithmetic. One thing kids don’t learn? How to be challenged by thinking that is different than their own – without exploding.
New Trier High School, for instance, has publicly committed in its strategic plan to emotional safety for its students. But if emotional safety means shielding them from ideas they kids might find challenging – or even offensive – instead of encouraging them to sharpen and expand their thinking, are we really keeping kids safe? As George Orwell reminds us in Animal Farm , “If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”