BOOK REVIEW

“Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech, and Political Correctness on College Campuses” by Michael S. Roth. Yale. 142 pp. $25. Review provided by The Washington Post.

In 2016, a group of students at Reed College in Portland, Ore., vociferously protested the curriculum of the school’s required introductory humanities course, which focused on ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman cultures. Student protest leaders led boycotts and disruptions of the class, decrying the faculty’s approach to the history as “too white” and painting the course as “an element of white supremacy still pervading a campus that complacently saw itself as very progressive,” writes Michael S. Roth in his new book, “Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech, and Political Correctness on College Campuses.”

Roth, the president of Wesleyan University, which is also known for its progressive spirit, takes a modestly critical view of the student protesters, writing that “the notion that the frosh course was ‘white’ or classically ‘Western’ was just wrong.” He explains that “these student activists claimed they were being ‘traumatized’ by a class reminiscent of one that had existed at the school before people like themselves had been encouraged to enroll.” In the end, Roth reports, the dissenting students prevailed: Reed College replaced the foundational class with units set not only in ancient Athens and Jerusalem but more contemporary Mexico City and Harlem.

Roth has written a timely book on a fascinating topic: the persistent tension, as witnessed in the debate over the Reed humanities class, between making college students feel safe and included vs. confronting them with uncomfortable, alien ideas and antagonizing versions of history. In Roth’s view, the protesting Reed students went too far in defending the former value to the possible detriment of the latter.

Roth’s book arrives at a time when both values are in jeopardy: Hate and bias-related incidents are on the rise on college campuses, according to a report published this year by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the Fund for Leadership, Equity, Access and Diversity. Yet at the same time, as Roth documents, a growing number of student organizations have tried to boycott – or ban outright – speakers, courses or professors deemed too conservative for their comfort zone.

Roth, who has led Wesleyan for more than a decade, divides his book into three sections. The first focuses on what he depicts as a trade-off between access (recruiting more students of color and low-income and first-generation students) and inclusion (finding ways to better support historically underrepresented groups once they are on campus). Institutions generally “have hard choices,” he writes, “Devote more resources to bring in more low-income students? Or devote them to helping a smaller number of students truly flourish?” Roth adds that “most institutions find it difficult to do either, and very few can do both.”

Yet this seems like a false choice for the elite private institutions that Roth focuses on in the book. Although many colleges and universities face grave financial pressures – Roth notes that 45 states spent less per student on public colleges and universities in 2016 than they did before 2008 – the elite colleges, it seems, could strive fully for both access and inclusion. At Wesleyan, whose endowment was about $1 billion in 2018, Roth says he’s seen “trustees and students ... turn their attention to providing more support for the low-income students already on campus rather than seeking to increase the number of these students.” He does not delve into the reasons institutions like Wesleyan can’t afford to do both.

The trade-off described in the second and third parts of the book is more clear: how to stretch students’ comfort zones and understanding without shattering their sense of safety. Roth explores this tension through a history and discussion of political correctness and free speech on campus.

Roth’s historical approach is useful and instructive. He writes, for instance, that in the period between the two world wars, the phrase “politically correct” had a neutral meaning – denoting whether an action or an idea was faithful to a political party’s goals and philosophy. It developed much more pejorative connotations when Russia’s Joseph Stalin signed the non-aggression pact with Germany’s Adolf Hitler and communists who supported him were said to be “correct”: in step with their leader (if out of line with basic morality).

Throughout the book, Roth explores the nuances of student actions that outsiders have described as “PC,” including the Reed College protests and the uproar at his own Wesleyan University after an op-ed in the student newspaper criticized the Black Lives Matter movement.

Roth’s thesis is simple and shrewd: “There will be tensions between flourishing and criticizing,” he writes. “Education happens in that tense space: the safe-enough classroom.”

Here and elsewhere, Roth is at his best at his most declarative. For instance, whether you agree with him or not, his appeal for heterodoxy of campus viewpoints, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, is thoughtful and thought-provoking. “We need an affirmative action program for ideas emerging from conservative and religious traditions,” he writes.

I found other parts of this slim book, totaling 124 pages of text, sometimes ponderous, packed with rhetorical questions that at times felt meandering. At one point, Roth criticizes college students for being too PC. “I share the concern that many college students today are too open to restrictions on discourse,” he writes. Yet just a few pages later, he disagrees with those who complain about “oversensitive” students’ desires for accommodations like trigger warnings (explicit statements at the start of a class or reading that it contains material that some might find upsetting). “But aren’t students today oversensitive? Isn’t their demand for trigger warnings and inclusive environments a sign of their desire to substitute comfort for intellectual rigor?” Roth writes. “As a teacher, I have not found (this) to be the case.”

In the book’s final section, Roth provides one example of a classroom that strives to be “safe-enough”: his own philosophy and film class at Wesleyan. I craved additional examples. Taking readers inside more of these classrooms would not only make for interesting, illuminating reading but would help give us a road map for how colleges can work to protect the two core values – inclusion and provocation – that these days seem not only at odds but perilously at risk.

– Reviewed by Sarah Carr, who is the editor of the Teacher Project, an education reporting fellowship at Columbia Journalism School, and the author of “Hope Against Hope,” which tells the story of New Orleans schools.

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