College is Not a Safe Space for Christians … and That’s Just Fine

By George Yancey Published on November 22, 2015

In my last op-ed about the growing demand for “safe spaces” on college campuses, I noted that one Yale student said, “I don’t want to debate. I want to talk about my pain.” These and other comments indicate that for many protesters, what makes their college experience feel unsafe is any speech that challenges their views about their racialized college experience.

This has led me to think about my own college experience as an African-American and as a Christian. While I do not want to dismiss the racism I have experienced in my life, I can confidently say that when I was in graduate school, my identity as a Christian was far more under attack than my identity as a black. I was repeatedly informed that Christians like me were the source of most of the problems in our society, and challenged to leave my Christian identity behind. Like many Christians today, I did not feel safe.

At the time it was fairly scary to not feel safe. But now I am glad that I was not kept safe. As a young Christian in graduate school, I benefited from that lack of safety. Having my ideas and identity as a Christian challenged forced me to rethink some of my previous ideas. Some of those ideas I dropped. Others emerged stronger.

Those ideas had faced critique and I came to the conclusion that the critiques did not measure up. I am more confident in the intellectual vitality of my faith having placed those ideas in an unsafe place. In many ways I am a more confident and thoughtful Christian today because my identity was not protected in graduate school.

Those who are attempting to protect themselves from hostile ideas are missing a fantastic opportunity to grow. They have an opportunity to engage in the type of introspection that sharpened and strengthened my ideas. It is scary to confront alternate ideas. I get that. But looking at those ideological confrontations from this side of my growth has made me appreciate them in ways I could not have when I first started graduate school.

Many Christians are concerned about the secularizing influences of higher education. I am sympathetic toward those concerns and to complaints about the bias against religious faith in a secularized academic atmosphere. I have written about this problem in the past and plan on doing so in the future. It is fair to talk about issues of unfairness when there is evidence a person may not get an academic position because of his or her faith. It’s perfectly legitimate to press for the right to compete on a level playing field in the academic market. What we Christians should not seek is an academic environment safe from challenges.

If our Christian faith is based on reality, then why not welcome the opportunity to defend it and improve in our ability to do so through trial and error? Likewise, if today’s student protesters are expressing an accurate view of reality, then why not allow it to undergo critique. In both cases individuals will be free to jettison elements of their viewpoint that don’t square with reality, and they can become more confident in those aspects of their beliefs that survive critique.

Understand, I do not focus most of my displeasure on the student protestors. Most of us remember how ideological we were as young adults, how confident that we were right and everyone who disagreed with us was out to lunch. As we get older, hopefully we develop a little more humility and learn that disagreement with others is not the end of the world. What I find troubling is that many college professors have supported the notion that students are entitled to being safe from uncomforting ideas.

Instead, professors should be challenging students to sharpen their ideas by confronting opposing viewpoints and thinking through lazy assumptions. Indeed, we do our students a disservice when we fail to do so. Cocooning students away from perspectives they don’t agree with is the last thing we should do if we want them to mature into the charitable citizens needed in a multicultural democracy. We need to generate citizens who can tolerate and dialogue with those with whom they disagree instead of seeking safety for their political and social beliefs.

In this we Christians can and should lead by example, demonstrating a winsome courage, grace and good humor in the face of intellectual challenges on campus.

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