University is meant for new ideas - even shocking ones

University is meant for new ideas - even shocking ones

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The sculpture "Sleepwalker" is controversial - but that's exactly why it should stay at the university.
The sculpture "Sleepwalker" is controversial - but that's exactly why it should stay at the university.
Photo: AFP

When we enter the hallowed halls of a university, we believe that the purest forms of freedom of expression will be upheld within those walls. We imagine classrooms filled with people holding opposing views, of spirited debates, and clashes that question our values, beliefs and previous notions of the world.

Yet some suggest that "safe spaces" are slowly taking over university classrooms, that the flow of conversation is interrupted by the constant checking of privileges, and of disparaging comments directed at those who "shouldn't" have a say in the conversation.

Take my own campus last year. When the infamous Sleepwalker, a statue of a sleepwalking man in only his underwear, was installed, the campus was alive with criticism that the statue was an emotional trigger for victims of sexual assault. Petitions were started to remove the statue, but the administration decided to keep it there, citing that it was an art installation, designed to generate conversation.

This is an example where the administration, despite the seemingly negative response, decided to keep something that is labelled as "non-safe", something that forces us to consider what art is, and its role in society. Numerous op-eds were written within and outside the school community, both defending and criticising the move.

More recently, the student body has been divided on whether pro-Palestine groups trying to raise awareness have crossed the line by claiming that their opponents are Zionists. In the ensuing email exchange, each faction claimed that the other had rendered the school no longer a "safe space" for others. To become pro-Palestine does not mean becoming anti-Israel, and there needs to be healthy discussion, where both sides come together to educate the people caught in the crossfire of exchange.

In some ways, it is ironic that the debate of having "safe spaces" should be held in universities. Universities have historically been where new ideas are brought to light - but not always immediately embraced. Part of the reason I chose Wellesley was because the conversations I'd have would broaden my understanding of issues to include different perspectives.

Discomfort is part of the learning process. It forces us out of our little worlds into a bigger universe where people and ideas question our most fundamental beliefs. And so while I agree that we all need safe spaces, and that we should be mindful of others' discomfort, we need to keep discussions alive within the classroom.

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
Schools are meant for shocking new ideas

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