story Raeden Richardson and Kaushik Swaminathan
Dear Class of 2019,
There are upperclassmen who will graduate from Yale-NUS College with a degree but no education. Some have childishly avoided threatening ideas and have no mental resolve to encounter morally confronting situations. As you, the Class of 2019, begin life at this college you should not sit complacently beneath so-called “safe space” banners, but embark on an individual yet rewarding journey of self-cultivation. Our school may be regarded as a bastion of privilege for its multimillion dollar infrastructure, liberal travel grants, and concessions from the Singaporean government—yet the real bastion of privilege, and the far more dangerous one, is the increasing belief that students are entitled to intellectual and emotional safeguarding.
To be educated is to be “unearthed and unsettled”. Plato, in his Allegory of the Cave, reminds us that education involves an arduous abandonment of everything one knows and a pained turning towards higher truths. One must confront all the beliefs one holds, including those on culture, race and sexuality and how these converge to build an identity. Your choice at Yale-NUS, thus, is whether you want to be educated or not. Students who restrict themselves and others from being challenged for fear of offending do not contribute to the intellectual growth of the College in any way.
Within the classroom, there are students who, when reading Aristotle or Nietzsche for example, might brand these thinkers as “racist” or “sexist” and fail to recognize the complexity of such undemocratic and unsociable ideas, oblivious to their origins in a culture markedly different from ours. This is an infantile response to ideas that have shaped political and creative expression for centuries, steeped in the jargon of the hyper-sensitive and emotionally incapable. Do not restrict your discussions of these and other thinkers to whether they might be offensive—thereby limiting the academic experience for others who actively want to engage these ideas—but ask what your emotional reaction reflects about certain presumptions and be willing to rethink them. Last semester’s Sociology of Religion class—which included an author of this piece and several Christian students—circumvented the inherent incompatibilities of maintaining religious beliefs while studying it as sociology. Meanwhile, many non-religious students aware of these incompatibilities were themselves incapable of challenging their classmates for fear of offending, creating an underwhelming intellectual and personal experience for everyone involved.
More worrying are the trends from administrators that presume our students need nannying. How is this manifest? That the Social Psychology course (among others) has a policy that students “should not use racist, sexist or other discriminatory language” immediately restrains students from articulating why racist, sexist and other discriminatory language is wrong. Our intellectual positions should be challenged rather than policed. How will students learn why racist language is problematic if they are muzzled before they can reason through their view? At a true educational institution, no issue is taboo and all ideas should be conceived, articulated and challenged.
And then, as you walk outside the classrooms at Yale-NUS, many of you will for the first time hear the abstraction “safe space.” You will also encounter people fundamentally different from and opposed to you in social, cultural or political ways. Perhaps you will meet a proudly gay student and a devout Catholic struggling to reconcile their differences. Perhaps they will be comfortable not looking eye-to-eye and avoiding discussing these challenging issues with their closest friends in a naïve attempt to keep the peace. Such an inability to confront and challenge one another alludes to the hyper-politically correct safe spaces that leave this community void of any intellectual and personal examination. Why is gay sex unnatural? How might a faith that makes her so fulfilled completely unsettle me? Such questions may terrify, and even more so their answers, yet having a collegiate education only begins in overcoming this uneasiness and confronting these issues eye-to-eye. It is absurd to demarcate certain “spaces” as safe as it undermines the act of learning which in its nature is unsafe. Our campus must rid itself of safe spaces and instead accept the entire environment as a challenging one.
We write to you as not only successors—sophomores and juniors—but as pioneers of your own place in this school. College Avenue West is your new home and as Yale-NUS is still in its infancy, it is essential to consider what it means to embark on a collegiate education of value and to realize this education is entirely in your hands. Our classes could benefit greatly from a reminder of what it means to be challenged. We urge you to make Yale-NUS fulfill its educational function and make us richer, more intellectually robust human beings. Only then might there be mature, empathetic graduates who will make all who have invested so much proud to be a part of this institution.
Raeden Richardson, Class of 2017
Kaushik Swaminathan, Class of 2018
[…] Last week’s piece on the infantilization of the academic experience at Yale-NUS College is troubling. The analysis is reductive, the prose condescending, and the conclusions misguided. Nonetheless, it offers us an opportunity to outline what safe spaces actually are and why they matter. […]
[…] paranoia over safe spaces threatening freedom of expression ultimately is the result of conflating what it […]