In an insightful new piece for The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf writes that the increasingly diverse nature of college campuses makes it impossible for residence halls to be a true “home” for each and every student. In “A College Is a Community but Cannot Be a Home,” Friedersdorf defines a home as a “place of respite from ideas that one finds uncomfortable,” and explains how shared campus dormitories function instead like microcosms of the university itself, exposing students to a variety of viewpoints.
For example, while some students may want to use their dormitory as a place to unwind after engaging in heated debates in the classroom, others may actually prefer having these kinds of conversations in their residence halls. Essentially, because what constitutes a “home” is so subjective, it is impossible to create a one-size-fits-all standard.
What feels like a “safe space” to one person can feel stifling or even “unsafe” to another. A sex-positive feminist may want to decorate her dorm door with a poster from a provocative art exhibition. An evangelical Christian across the hall might not feel “at home” seeing graphic images each morning upon leaving her dorm room. Yet forbid the feminist artist from decorating her door as she sees fit and she will find the space she inhabits seems less like home. The whole standard is untenable.
FIRE is often asked about our stance on so-called “safe spaces.” We feel that Friedersdorf hits the nail on the head here. Safe spaces present a problem for free expression on campus when they are used as a sword rather than a shield by those attempting to control what others may say in public spaces and forums. So while students can certainly create “safe spaces” by choosing to voluntarily associate around shared beliefs and interests, they cannot dictate that a shared space, such as a residence hall, conform to these qualities.
Friedersdorf also makes the excellent point that learning to live away from the comforts of home is arguably one of the most important aspects of the college experience:
[A]mong my 30-something peers, I have so many friends and acquaintances, across the full diversity of identity groups, who regard the collegiate periods that were least like home––the semester abroad, the challenging roommate, the residence hall where it was forbidden to speak their native language, and yes, the late-night dorm debates with folks whose viewpoints they found offensive––as the times that most contributed to their education, their growth, and their later flourishing.
FIRE wholeheartedly agrees that learning to tolerate opinions, values, and practices different from your own is an invaluable skill. The less you interact with diverse viewpoints, the more you risk losing one of the core benefits of higher education.
You can read Friedersdorf’s whole piece on The Atlantic’s website.