Lecturers need to ‘man up’ and tell students how to deal with challenging ideas

Safe-spaces and Trigger warnings not only limit education but also threaten free-speech


In recent years, universities have begun making campuses ‘Safe-Spaces’ and using of ‘Trigger warnings’ in an effort to make students feel more comfortable. This cotton-wool approach means universities have become devoid of academic freedom, infringing on the right to free speech as well as a placing limits on how prepared a student is to face the real world.

That’s what Joanna Williams thinks anyway. She is a leading academic in the field of Higher Education,working part time at Kent University, as well as the Education Editor for Spiked Magazine. Over the last few years, she has argued universities need to be a place of free ideas and speech, having written books calling for the right to free speech on campus she has become a leading voice against the ‘safe-space trend’.

Joanna Williams

‘Students deserve better’

Joanna sees a link between the growth of safe-spaces and trigger warnings and the decline in the value of education offered at universities. She thinks that “people learn when they’re confronted with ideas they disagree with”, when universities stop being an environment of ideas but turn into “big safe spaces” then the ones to lose out are the students themselves.

Instead of being institutions for students to mature intellectually, they are “basically a continuation of school”, indeed Joanna thinks that safe-spaces are so harmful to students’ education that “they should be completely outlawed”. “Students deserve better”, she adds.

Although Joanna recognises that students themselves are the ones clamouring for more restrictions, the onus is on academics to “man-up” and show students how to deal with challenging ideas or those that may carry an emotional risk.

It is often the academics themselves who have played a dominant role in the ‘safe-space trend’, by being “at the front” of moves to ban things on campus. If an academic has a strong opinion, Joanna feels that they have a responsibility to “lead by example”, instead of simply removing it from campus: “The best way to show you disagree with something is to confront the ideas”.

‘The customer is always right’

It is not always easy for academics to be the protectors of free speech and ideas because they are “really worried of producing anything that might be challenging for students”. Over the last few years, universities have become more and more based on student satisfaction, “ensuring that students are satisfied in the short term has become a fixation for academics”.

Joanna thinks that students themselves want to have more restrictions

Joanna thinks that the fact that students now pay for Higher Education has something to do with this. “If a student pays for their education than the student becomes a customer, and the customer is always right”. What student, she asks, would “pay for something that makes them unhappy, when they can basically demand to have freedom from speech, rather than freedom of speech?”.

There has also been a growing trend in society, that treats students as mentally and emotionally fragile beings. “There are always surveys that show students have massive mental health issues”. Although students maybe more prone to mental health problems, restricting free speech with the use of Safe-Spaces instead of treating students as adults, will only come “to equate being a student with being mentally vulnerable”.

Students are prioritising safety over free speech

So does Joanna think that universities will continue to be concerned with protecting students? “We’ll see a lot more examples of this”, she answers because students have becoming increasingly less committed to the values of free speech. Students may say they are committed to free speech, but because safety is privileged over everything else, it creates an attitude where “Free speech is fine until it comes into contact with hurt feelings”.

Aside from causing frustration among academics and students, Joanna attributes the rise of lad culture as a result of the increasing restrictions that are placed upon students, “The more restrictions that are put on freedom of speech, the more we encourage students to do randomly offensive things just to confront it”.

Instead of lad culture and offending for the sake of offending which Joanna thinks is “a silly challenge”, what is needed “is a proper defence that shows students to be functioning adults that cope with ideas and don’t need protecting”.

She sees hope in the growth of university societies that promote the right to free speech, not for the sake of it but to “provide a legitimate challenge to restrictions” is a promising sign that there is a “student appetite for opinions that are more diverse”.

In the end, Joanna sees the rise of safe-spaces and trigger warnings as “very sad” not only because they harm education and free speech but also because it is directly against what students had fought for in the 1960s.

“We are moving back to a system where universities take the role of parents over students”, she says, instead of centres of learning “they are becoming giant kindergartens.”

Joanna Williams and Cheryl Hudson co-edited Why Academic Freedom Matters which is out this week from Civitas.