On the seductive fallacy of the ‘safe’ classroom

violenceAlmost every semester, I remind my students that I have three general expectations for any particular class. I couch these in terms of joy, formation, and community. In regards to the latter, I note my expectation that we will learn together. Studying theology is a challenging exercise, but I hope and expect that there will be a growing awareness among my students that theology is the responsibility and work undertaken by a hermeneutical community. Part of this entails that students feel a measure of safety in the classroom, that the learning environment be a place where their learnings and reflections are welcomed. No one learns while feeling threatened or in a place where one is constantly on the defence, or on the charge. Any classroom can be a perilous place as much as it can be a gift, a place where we grow frustrated with and mistrusting of one another, a place where we can learn the disgraceful habits of competition and soon forget that the texts we employ, and the ideas we share, are not part of some intellectual game but rather represent our efforts to think faithfully about the narratives of divine love. I believe that the story of God is the most beautiful of stories, and we learn it best when we learn in such a way that that beauty finds form in our learning together.

But there is another side to all this. For if the learning environment is merely safe, it is unlikely that anyone will learn anything at all. Teaching calls for a kind of necessity for violence – a kind of violence against our dearly-beloved ideas and convictions, for example – apart from which the kind of expectations I have in my teaching cannot be reached. Thus there is a real sense in which I hope that my students will not feel safe at all. For there seems little point in undertaking theological study unless one is willing to have one’s ideas interrogated, challenged, transformed, changed. Real learning is always a kind of repentance, with all of the risk and pain in the arse that such entails. It may also, as George Steiner has noted, ‘take us as near as is possible to the concept of resurrection’. In this sense, I invite my students to resist with all their might the seductive fallacy of the ‘safe’ classroom and what Ilan Stavans recently called the ‘façade for overprotectiveness’. ‘Being in class’, Stavans writes, ‘doesn’t bring salvation. Instead, it plunges you into the contradictions that shape our lives. Safety is a basic principle of education: Knowledge results from trust, and trust comes from care. Yet whether we like it or not, violence is an unavoidable feature, our constant companion. Nature without violence is a contradiction’.

‘Fidelity and betrayal are close knit’ (Steiner) in any community, classrooms included.

8 thoughts on “On the seductive fallacy of the ‘safe’ classroom

  1. Well said. The best teachers and mentors I have had have shown remarkable freedom in bringing their own beliefs and ideas to the light of repentance. The fruit of their humility and kindness has been that their students have the courage to do the same. As a community they keep moving forward, anchored by the good character of their captain. In these environments I know that none of my ideas are safe, but that I am in good company because he/she has put an idea on the altar a thousand times before me.

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  2. If one is willing to put ones ideas up for correction and interogation then I am not sure that the person who provides the interogation and challenge is rightly described as violent.

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  3. As Mr. Beaver said of Aslan, “Who said anything about safe?” But (cf. Bruce), I’d speak of “danger” rather than “violence”, or (if you like) of a baptised violence.

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  4. It’s hard to find the right word, I reckon. I’m not sure “danger” quite describes it fully enough, cos there is actually a shaking up, a ripping apart and a death that has to occur when we learn something new and let go of the old ways/thoughts – especially when they contradict each other. I found “violence” uncomfortable too, but I’m finding it hard to think of a better word that adequately describes that process without sanitising it too much. It’s going to be an interesting Semester!

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  5. Thanks for weighing in. I love your comment Tamara, even if I don’t think I’m a very good ‘captain’ and even if the metaphor itself doesn’t quite work for me as an image of what’s going on in a classroom; unless, of course, one has Mr W. Whitman and Mr John Keating in mind. With Bruce and Kim, I share some discomfort with the use of the word ‘violence’, although I do at least have the privilege of knowing what I mean by the word when I use it. I think that Bec is spot on – ‘It’s hard to find the right word’. Her description, however, coupled with Kim’s ‘fire’ makes me wonder if ‘purgatory’ might be a more apt description of what is going on in good teaching. I’m all for Protestants recovering good babies that the reformers should never have thrown out with the bathwater anyway.

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