I was a college sophomore, 19 years old, when I encountered (for the first and last time) the writing of the Marquis de Sade.
My professor entered the room, and around forty students reigned in a collective grin. Immersed in the world of college, surrounded by adolescents and new adults, any academic discussion of sexuality validated our sensual awakening. On that autumn day, as we strutted with our heightened bodily awareness, the Classical Mythology syllabus promised a grand lecture topic: Sexuality in Ancient Greece. Our professor lifted a book from his briefcase and held up the cover. Marquis de Sade. With no introduction, he began to read.
Rape. Torture. Objectification. Ruthless. Graphic. Relentless.
My hands turned clammy. One student whispered he might vomit. Another began to cry. Several groaned, and the woman to my left literally gagged. Our professor forged onward, reading with a softness that struck me as bizarre, coupled with the raw horror of the text. When he finally finished, after an interminable fifteen minutes, I looked around the classroom. Every face registered shock.
I understood that the professor was trying to catapult us into a different way of thinking. But the problem was I couldn’t think at all. My notes for that day were a blank page. Even in the moment, stunned and nauseated, I knew something had gone extremely wrong. As I gained a bit of distance, I wanted to understand how fifteen minutes rocketed a classroom from eager to paralyzed, from open-to-learning to unable-to-think. In light of recent events on many college campuses, I now realize that lecture, nearly forty years ago, marked the beginning of my grappling with a term that didn’t exist at the time: Safe Spaces.
No Safe Spaces means that any idea is heard. Everyone has a voice and an open ear. Formulations that make us uneasy, that challenge our intellectual comfort zones are the stuff that education is made of. Freedom of speech is essential for freedom of thought, which is the foundation for change, discovery, invention. As individuals and as a group, people need to blaze trails into uncharted territory. In the context of an academic institution, the safest spaces are created, ironically, by a commitment to no safe spaces.
But in order to learn and grow to full capacity, people need to feel safe in certain fundamental ways. They need to feel respected and accepted for their full selves – gender identity, racial heritage, religion, sexuality. They need to feel safe in their bodies, protected in their appearance. Every student must know they belong, both in spite of their differences and because of them.
Looking back to that lecture, our professor slammed us with the Marquis de Sade, a blitzkrieg attack. On that one day, unlike any other in my four years of college, teaching became an act of aggression. I experienced his words as weapons, and I instinctively moved into a primitive defensive stance, closing off my own path to learning.
To sustain a fertile educational environment, both students and educators need to tolerate discomfort with new ideas. They need to welcome styles of thinking that clash with their own. People need to go boldly into a zone of No Safe Spaces. We need diverse opinions, questions that range from interesting to frightening. We need to challenge ourselves and others. But freedom of speech must also include empathy and thoughtfulness. We need to care about our neighbors, our partners in learning, our team. To push the boundaries of thought, we need to feel safe in our community.
In the world of education, Safe Spaces and Unsafe Spaces are not antonyms. In fact, we need both, in balance, to support and sustain an institution that promotes discovery, creativity, experimentation, innovation. Unsafe and Safe must stand together, shoulder to shoulder, hand in hand.
Let’s be safe. Let’s be unsafe. Let’s learn.
Amy Kaufman Burk is an author and blogger. Her first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, was written in reaction to seeing gay boys bullied in high school. Her second novel, Tightwire, follows a rookie psych intern treating her first patient, a stormy young man who grew up in the circus. Amy blogs about a variety of subjects including parenting, LGBTQ+ ally support, and a Rolling Stones concert. Amy also collaborates with educators who use her novels in their curriculum.
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