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College isn't supposed to be the place young people hide from scary ideas. Safe zones to make sure no one has hurt feelings dampen academic discourse very likely do more harm than good, by shielding anxious people from opportunities for emotional growth.

Warning: This article contains facts that may offend delicate sensibilities.

Someone who went to college in the United States in the 1960's might have trouble recognizing colleges today. Whereas colleges in the 60's were often places of loud, tumultuous, rude, and sometimes violent disagreement, colleges of 2016 have gone to the opposite extreme. "Safe zones" provide young adults a haven of emotional respite where words and ideas that might upset them are not allowed.

What Was Life Like Safe Zones?

Americans who grew up in the 1940's, 1950's, 1960's, or 1970's mostly were allowed unsupervised childhoods. After-school activities were not monitored except with the admonition "Be home by dark." Children rode bicycles into strange neighborhoods. They climbed into abandoned buildings. They even shared peanut butter sandwiches, sometimes after the first child had taken a bite. Sometimes did the truly unthinkable and tried (tobacco) cigarettes and looked at their parents' (print) pornography. If another kid hit you in the nose, the first question your parent would probably ask was "And did you hit back?" meaning "Did you two work it out, or do I have to get involved?"

In the farming community where I myself was raised, a six-year-old probably had shot a gun (a good thing when you live in a location where there are animals that can literally eat you), a ten-year-old probably could drive a pickup and a farm tractor, the same tractor his father or mother could drive, not a play tractor (and I lost one of my childhood chums at age 12 when his  tractor rolled over), as needed, and a twelve-year-old had probably assisted a parent or a vet in birth or castration of farm animals. This is not to mention some experience in butchering and sausage making.

Then in the 1980's, American parents started becoming a lot more cautious. Sensational stories of mass child abuse, which were found to be completely untrue, but only after innocent teachers and child care workers had waited in jail for years, filled the news media. In 1984, milk cartons started carrying pictures of missing children. A massacre at Columbine High School in 1999 led schools to adopt a zero-tolerance attitude toward violence, to the point that one little boy was expelled from school for pointing his finger at someone and saying "Bang," and another child was expelled for pointing a pickle in a menacing manner.

What Are Safe Zones Like Today?

It was only a matter of time before children who had been carefully protected from adults became adults seeking to be protected from other adults. Safe Zones started becoming common on campuses of selective colleges that charge high tuition:

  • Harvard law professor Jeannie Suk wrote of students asking other professors not to teach rape law, or even to use the word violate, which might upset future lawyers who had personal experience of being sexually assaulted, or who were traumatized by the stories of others.
  • Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing the politics of sexual paranoia on her campus. Then students who were offended filed legal complaints against her.
  • At  Christ Church College at Oxford University, famous for its debates, a debate on abortion had to be canceled after student protests that both debaters were men.
  • The president of Smith College, Kathleen McCartney, had to apologize for her apparent sympathies for a professor who protested the use of the euphemism "the n-word" when discussing Mark Twain's term for African-Americans in the American class Huckleberry Finn. (See, we know our limits, too.)

When I myself was in public school in the 1960's, Mark Twain's term was already something we didn't use in normal conversation. We dared speak it aloud when we were discussing the book in class, but even African-American students in the class realized that the novel had been written in the nineteenth century.

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