By: Eliyahu Spivack | Opinions  | 

A Safe Space of Our Own

We attend a very unusual college. While most colleges have relatively diverse racial, ethnic and religious student bodies, we have little to no diversity in any of those areas. Given this reality, many of the social debates taking place on college campuses throughout this country aren’t directly relevant to our lives.

Contentious issues such as affirmative action and intersectionality largely don’t affect us. Despite our lack of exposure, many students here enjoy listening to social commentators who mock today’s college students as soft and overprotected. Since YU isn’t a typical university, perhaps those students think that we’re less liable to be accused as such. After all, the so-called free speech social commentators get much warmer welcomes here than at many other colleges. However, I’d like to suggest that we are no less prone to intellectual closed-mindedness than students at any other college. We simply operate in a different context.

One of a secular college's most important goals is to promote academic inquiry, debate and growth. This naturally leads to contentious debate, especially concerning topics which people are personally invested in. While nobody suggests that students should live their whole college career in a safe space, it doesn’t seem ridiculous to have an occasional setting where one can feel validated and free from judgment. Students at secular colleges eventually have to leave their safe space and interact with the rest of the diverse student body. YU, however, is very different.

While YU certainly takes academic inquiry, debate and growth very seriously, it is all done under the protective umbrella of Orthodox Judaism. Everyone is required to take Judaic studies courses which promote traditional religious perspectives, and we’re told that professors shouldn’t make us feel uncomfortable about being religious Jews. We’re also required to take Bible courses taught by committed religious professors who obviously profess that the Torah is the word of G-d as given to Moshe.

If we prioritized academic inquiry over religious faith, we would also learn about the very different views which most Biblical scholars hold. To be clear, I don’t think that YU should actually offer such a class; I’m merely giving an example of a topic which would “trigger” our student body. We just never get exposed to them because they may endanger students’ religious beliefs.

Since YU only caters to such a narrow ideological range of students, there simply isn’t much for us to disagree on. Debates about men wearing kippot and women wearing pants are a far cry from a debate about, for example, gender-neutral bathrooms. This homogeneity of opinion and protection of religious practice is what makes our campus culture so different from those of other colleges. Hypothetically, if YU were to allow something that would make students strongly doubt their faith, we would be just as into safe spaces and trigger warnings as any other campus is.

For example, imagine if YU offered a Bible course surveying scholarly evidence for non-Mosaic authorship of the Torah. Many students would feel that it would undermine the whole reason they chose to attend YU. Also, many rabbis would announce that attending such a class is forbidden, a trigger warning that would top anything seen at a secular campus. Likely, many of the same people who decry coddled college students would now willingly be religiously coddled themselves. Analogously, if a firebrand antagonistic atheist was invited to speak on campus, our administration would shut it down faster than any liberal arts college diversity board could ever hope to. We are no less susceptible to being made to feel unsafe or insulted than students at any other college. We have simply selected ourselves into an academic environment which doesn’t threaten a core aspect of our identities.

Given this reality, it’s inappropriate and hypocritical for any of us to think that we value free speech and academic freedom any more than students at other colleges do. While a student at another college eventually has to leave their safe space, we have decided to attend a college that is, by its nature, one large safe space. We are “protected” from exposure to critical perspectives of our own beliefs and from social and cultural mores that differ from many of ours. This is all a recipe for less diversity of opinion and freedom of inquiry, not more. Essentially, instead of having protests when someone speaks on campus, we cancel the event before any protest can even take place.


Photo Caption: Safe spaces are places where students can talk without judging each other.

Photo Credit: UMKC