Friends magazine, Fall 2017

Page 9

query I propose instead that we should lead by example. Our goal should be to model scholarly inquiry and the highest standards of respectful discourse in everything we do. It is no great mystery what sorts of conduct we hope to inspire in our students. We want them to treat others with civility and respect, engage in thoughtful debate, and show the courage to stand up for their convictions. We hope that they will remain open-minded whenever there is room for reasoned disagreement and that they will be tolerant of diverse views, but also eager to challenge erroneous or oppressive positions. We can best achieve these lofty goals by doing as we would have them do. Similarly, our teaching methods should encourage students both to express themselves and to develop empathy. We can use active learning exercises and classroom discussion to encourage students to take the perspective of others. We should expect students to make mistakes and give them the opportunity to learn from those experiences. Finally, we must constantly question our first impressions and conventional wisdom. Without a healthy dose of humility, we all run the risk of succumbing to the sort of arrogant overconfidence that so often afflicts contemporary political discourse. J.H. (Rip) Verkerke ’77, is a professor of law and director of the Program for Employment and Labor Law Studies at the University of Virginia School of Law.

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It has been very insightful watching the debate surrounding safe spaces on high school and college campuses evolve. Some take “safe spaces” to mean “repressing speech,” leading to the hotly debated term “snowflake culture.” This is bemusing, as creating learning environments where debates don’t devolve into insults is hardly repressing speech. A safe space is an environment in which one can feel comfortable being their authentic self and safely expressing their viewpoints. In theory, every environment should be a safe space; however, that is regrettably not the case. Within the past year, we as a country have witnessed many events proving that not every individual enjoys a universal sense of safety; many are in danger for merely existing. We all come from different social locations, intersections defining the lens through which we see the world. Despite the obvious fact that we are unevenly shaped by our privileges and disadvantages, many still remain confused by what demands for safety in academic communities mean. Whether this “snowflake culture” truly exists — or in actuality is a group of traditionally marginalized and unheard people demanding a seat at the table — is up for debate. What most will agree on, though, is that those of us privileged enough to have a choice in where we receive our education often make that decision based on the

expectation of safety and a positive atmosphere for growth. We, too, make that choice based on the core values of that institution, hoping to find a community whose mission aligns with our individual beliefs. For example, my mom chose Friends School because she believed it was the best place to prepare me for where I am today. Friends’ focus on community, drawing from Quaker tradition, in many ways embodies what a safe academic space should offer. To me, a safe space does not mean repressing speech or viewpoints; a safe space is a classroom where each other’s humanity and community comes first and discussion remains respectful of differing perspectives. A safe community provides students tools to engage in discussion of contentious topics without resorting to insults or raised voices. A safe community embues its members with an understanding that listening to — and reflecting on — others’ experiences will enrich and strengthen ties. There are many critical, sensitive discussions to be had, and giving students the skills to navigate these discussions in a patient and understanding manner is invaluable. The purpose of any institution is to help develop skills that are used for a lifetime. In college, I was encouraged to engage in classes and clubs that aligned with my beliefs and aspirations. I also engaged ideas that are counter to my own, often through vigorous classroom debates. The study of many opposing viewpoints helped me develop many of my current beliefs. It was only possible to expand my knowledge and worldview by vigorously debating many ideas. Stretching oneself to do the hard work of inclusion is demanding but necessary work. Everyone experiencing the same level of respect and safety strengthens the whole community. This starts with acknowledging the lived experiences of others and simply saying, “I believe you. I believe you when you are telling me that this makes you feel unwelcome here, and what can I do to change that?” We must recognize that within this context we are all working together, and sometimes it does get messy; in the end, students get the best that the school has to offer when learning environments are aligned with its mission. Elijah Muhammad ’12, is an alumnus of Northeastern University. This fall he began teaching in Baltimore City Schools through the Teach for America program.

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