Many would argue that these are the fundamental goals of a good education. So why has Cambridge University taken to warning its students that the sexual violence in Titus Andronicus might be traumatic for them? Why are other universities in America and increasingly in Britain introducing measures to protect students from speech and texts they might find harmful? Safe spaces, trigger warnings and no-platforming are now campus buzzwords – and they’re all designed to limit free speech and the exchange of ideas. As celebrated social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues in his forthcoming book The Coddling of the American Mind, university students are increasingly retreating from ideas they fear may damage their mental health, and presenting themselves as fragile and in need of protection from any viewpoint that might make them feel unsafe.The culture of safety, as Haidt calls it, may be well intentioned, but it is hampering the development of young people and leaving them unprepared for adult life, with devastating consequences for them, for the companies that will soon hire them, and for society at large.
That, Haidt’s critics argue, is an infuriating misinterpretation of initiatives designed to help students. Far from wanting to shut down free speech and debate, what really concerns the advocates of these new measures is the equal right to speech in a public forum where the voices of the historically marginalised are given the same weight as those of more privileged groups. Warnings to students that what they’re about to read or hear might be disturbing are not an attempt to censor classic literature, but a call for consideration and sensitivity. Safe spaces aren’t cotton-wool wrapped echo chambers, but places where minority groups and people who have suffered trauma can share their experiences without fear of hostility.
On November 19th Haidt came to the Intelligence Squared stage to discuss and debate these ideas. Joining him were the former chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who believes that educating young people through debate and argument helps foster robustness, author and activist Eleanor Penny, and sociologist Kehinde Andrews, one of the UK’s leading thinkers on race and the history of racism.