Safe Spaces and Safe Classrooms

Deacon Douglas P. McManaman

Throughout my teen years and my early years as a teacher, I was a devoted practical joker. I fooled teachers, priests, friends, relatives and students with some of the most devious but enjoyable of practical jokes–not always enjoyable for the victim, however. From the very start of my teaching career, I was committed to studying the analytical moral philosophy of Germain Grisez, Joseph Boyle and John Finnis, primarily for the sake of my students, because it was a highly structured system and adolescents like and need structure. I recall many years ago flipping through Volume III of Grisez’s Magnum Opus and noticing a subsection entitled “Jocose Lying”. I felt a physiological reaction at the sight of it. I did not want to read that, for fear of what I would discover. Is he going to argue that jocose lying is morally wrong? I closed the book and left it, but my conscience would not leave me alone, so a few days later I chose to read it. Much to my chagrin, the jokes I so loved to play on people, of which temporary lying was always a part, involved the manipulation of other peoples’ emotions, and so they violated the basic requirement to treat others in a way that respects their status as equal in dignity to oneself. It was obvious to me as I was reading it; for I hated it when my own emotions were being manipulated by the lies of a friend playing a good practical joke on me. And so I had to stop.

Although initially I found Grisez’s treatment of the issue subjectively unsatisfying, it was nevertheless beneficial. At least now there is one less manipulator in the world, and much less victims of emotional manipulation. The irony is that I had studied for years under some of the best moral philosophers in the world, but I still had to have something so basic pointed out to me. Although this idea of his was at the time unpleasant, subjectively unsatisfying, disappointing, even humiliating, and contrary to what I had always believed to be true, not for a second could I maintain that it was “unsafe”, much less “harmful”. The idea was true to the facts, and so it was pre-eminently safe, by virtue of that very fact. 

But “safe” and “unsafe” mean entirely different things within the context of postmodern woke culture. The father of postmodernism is Friedrich Nietzsche who maintained that reality is absurd, because it is unintelligible. It is unintelligible because it is unstable, in a constant state of pure flux, without permanency of any sort. Being is an illusion; there is only becoming. It follows that if reality is entirely without meaning in itself, then meaning is constructed, imposed upon reality through the vehicle of “sounds” or language. All science is a fiction. This of course means that there is no such thing as “truth itself”–the mind cannot conform to what is in a pure state of change; the mind must be able to grasp what is to some degree unchanging, stable enough for it to apprehend, but there is no stability, and so according to Nietzsche, knowledge is impossible. In this postmodern framework, education is fundamentally about power, not the pursuit of truth–for there is no such thing. And if truth is nothing but a product of an artificial power construct, one that has no more objective validity than any other construct, then “safe” or “unsafe” no longer mean the same thing as they would in a realist frame of mind. In a common sense realist perspective, an idea or claim that is true to reality is safe and beneficial to everyone by the very fact that it is true. If there is no “truth”, then a claim or idea is “unsafe” merely by virtue of the fact that it makes me uncomfortable, is disappointing, or contrary to my own personal worldview, which is my own or the dominant culture’s linguistic construct. “Unsafe” ideas are to be “deconstructed” and made “safe”, that is, pleasant. This latter perspective describes postmodern “wokeness”.

But this postmodern ideological narrative is entirely self-refuting and has it entirely backwards. It completely undermines the educational process, which in turn leads eventually and inevitably to a closed society, which according to Karl Popper is fundamentally “tribal” and governed by power, and whose social institutions are grounded on taboos. Is there anything more harmful and unsafe than a society closed to the pursuit of what is true, good, and beautiful in itself?

Science begins with a passionate interest in a problem. The logic of the scientific method proceeds from that starting point on the basis of the facts in evidence, and it moves towards a possible explanation of those facts (hypothesis), in order to solve an interesting problem. However, there are always a number of possible hypotheses that can account for the particular facts in evidence, and so each hypothesis must be tested in order to determine the most plausible one, given the limited information at our disposal. The most plausible hypothesis, given our limited set of data, may not remain so for long; new information may raise what was less plausible earlier to the place of maximal plausibility later. This logic describes not just scientific methodology, but our everyday knowledge acquisition as well. To test an idea in the humanities means “push back”, argument, dialogue, discussion, a dialectical process best illustrated in Plato’s dialogues. Over the years, I spent a great deal of time and effort trying to convince my own students to trust me, that their opposition, their disagreement with me, their difficult questions, in short, their push back, are not going to offend me, much less cost them marks. There is no education without “dialectic”–otherwise education becomes indoctrination, which is the method proper to a closed society. It was a difficult sell, because some of my brightest students, who could readily imagine difficulties with what they were being taught, were routinely “shut down” by their teachers throughout their entire Catholic school career. 

The woke language of “safe spaces”, “harmful” and “unsafe” classrooms simply has no place in Catholic elementary schools, high schools and universities. It is a language that has its roots in the absurd and self-refuting principles of postmodernism, completely incompatible and contrary to the fundamentals of a Judaic and Christian worldview. At the University of Chicago, the study of economics was said to be a “full contact sport”; one is free to embrace socialism, Keynesianism, classical liberalism, anarcho-capitalism, or anything in between, but one has to be ready and willing to debate it, defend it, and back it with evidence, because the plausibility of every idea needs to be tested. If the claims are true, they will withstand the test and everyone will be better off for it; if they are unsound, they won’t stand up to the pressure of a rigorous opposition. To impede that educational process for the sake of keeping students “safe” from feeling bad, “safe” from disappointment, from the painful process of growing in humility and the love of truth above the love of self, is to impose on them a most devious and harmful ideology that will keep them perpetually adolescent. That Catholic educators have begun to employ such ideological terminology is shameful.

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