In this Sunday, June 17, 2012 photo, a woman shovels near sand sculptures of Confucius, center, a famed thinker and philosopher in Chinese history, and his disciples, at a beach culture festival in Pingtan county, in southeastern China’s Fujian province. (AP Photo)

We’re hearing a lot from college students about the need for “safe spaces” on campuses but in this post, Steve Neumann, a writer and philosophile, writes that K-12 students need their own safe spaces. Neumann says he is interested in doing for philosophy what science journalists do for science — “preparing the arcana of academia into a dish digestible by the public.” His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Daily Beast, Philosophy Now and other outlets. He blogs at Notes Toward a New Chimera at Patheos.

 

By Steve Neumann

Students on college campuses across America—from Yale to the University of Missouri—are becoming more assertive in protesting administrations that, in their view, aren’t doing enough to ensure “safe spaces” against racism and other forms of offense and oppression.

To many of these students, the idea of a safe space is one where they’re able to fully express themselves without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or unsafe because of their race, sexual orientation, gender identity, or any other defining aspect of a minority or marginalized group.

As a straight, white and (at least originally) Christian male, my life has been completely free of discrimination for the past 43 years. I’ve never needed a safe space. And since I’m representative of mainstream America, I can’t speak to the pain of marginalized groups or really be a voice for them. But I have come to realize the importance of the concept of a safe space, and not just on college campuses. In fact, I’ve come to believe that it needs to become a part of our K-12 education system.

The kind of safe space I have in mind is the one envisioned by the Philosophy for Children movement, or P4C for short. P4C began with late philosopher Matthew Lipman’s 1969 novel “Harry Stottlemeier’s Discovery.” The novel and accompanying teacher manual were designed to help K-12 children learn how to think for themselves.

The movement itself has evolved over the years, but the central aspect of P4C is what’s known as “inquiry dialogue.” Here’s how I described it in a recent essay, using Hawaii’s 2012 Teacher of the Year Chad Miller as an example:

 In the classroom, Miller acts like Socrates, presenting his students with a variety of different stimuli for discussion, such as a poem, a piece of art, or readings from textbooks already being used in the classroom for traditional subjects. The focus of the inquiry dialogue is on the thoughts, ideas, and questions of the students themselves, rather than any abstract philosophical concept. Miller…fosters a climate conducive to the development of the critical thinking skills of his students by guiding and informing student inquiries, helping them pay attention to the quality of their reasoning, and making sure they realize they’re meeting on terms of equality and mutual respect.

With the inquiry dialogue of P4C, school classrooms are transformed into “learning communities” where students articulate, defend, and scrutinize each other’s viewpoints. According to Maughn Gregory, director of Montclair State University’s Philosophy for Children program, such discussions “offer students a kind of apprenticeship, during which the principles of disciplined inquiry, first practiced among peers, become part of one’s cognitive functioning.” Students can then draw upon these habits of mind whenever they need to address complex social and political issues.

But this foundation for critical thinking and mutual respect can only be effective if the inquiry dialogue of P4C takes place in a safe space. Thomas Jackson of the University of Hawaii, who has spent the past 30 years refining P4C, put it this way in an email to me:

 The inspiration for this special sense of a safe community came from the traditional Hawaiian idea of a Pu’uhonua, a place of safety, refuge. As we quickly discovered, classrooms are too often not safe places socially, emotionally or cognitively, and this reality gets in the way of all of us doing our best thinking and realizing more fully our potential.

The importance of a safe space for learning in general was highlighted by journalist and author Annie Murphy Paul in her recent article about the controversy at her alma mater, Yale, in Time magazine:

 And, research shows, a sense of belonging is essential for learning. We humans are social beings, wired for membership in a group. Mental resources devoted to monitoring one’s environment for cues of rejection, to fending off suspicions that one doesn’t belong, are mental resources that can’t be allocated to understanding and remembering academic content.

Society is a necessary compromise, so it’s imperative young citizens are equipped to function in it. Part of that compromise is being able to critically evaluate pressing issues and respectfully engage those who disagree with us. The safe space that Dr. Jackson describes ensures that students develop the ability to deal with conflict and distress in productive ways.

P4C in K-12 classrooms increasingly looks like a promising strategy. A recent study commissioned by the Department for Education in the United Kingdom to look into various teaching methods that might help build students’ resilience to extremism found that P4C was effective in “supporting young people to be emotionally resilient to life’s pressures and able to foster a positive sense of self, for example, through positive thinking, conflict-management techniques, and celebrating their multi-faceted identities.”

A quote from one of the students in the United Kingdom study epitomizes the mindset that can be cultivated from engagement in the safe spaces of P4C inquiry dialogue:

“You begin to respect people for what their views are, never mind whether they’re opposing to yours or contrary to yours. You’re going to have different opinions sometimes and maybe you need for someone to have a different opinion for you to accept that maybe some things are unsolved sometimes.”

No method is perfect, of course, and emotions in the heat of the moment always threaten to run the train of discourse off the rails. But consider what P4C practitioners like Dr. Jackson have to say about the importance of dialogue for democracy. As he told me later in that email:

Democracy is not primarily about a particular system, but about a cultural milieu, an intellectually safe community where members feel that they can express their thoughts and both listen and be listened to with respect. And the school classroom provides a crucial vehicle for learning and internalizing the care and behaviors essential to the successful realization of this practice.