A school’s decision to create an ‘unsafe space’ – where controversial ideas and works by everyone from Virginia Woolf to Adolf Hitler can be debated by pupils – has resulted in the predictable backlash. Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys, in Canterbury, has been accused of providing a platform for people to be xenophobic, sexist and racist. This is not the case. As a former pupil, it seems right that the school is allowing its students to step away from the overwhelming tide of political correctness and question incidents such as the recent firing of a Google employee for suggesting that women were less suited to some jobs than men. The ‘unsafe space’ is not about lecturing or ramming ideas down peoples’ throats, but actually debating them. Students will be encouraged to respond and argue with what they hear. Surely doing so is better than shutting away unsavoury views? Apart from anything else, taking that approach and burying one’s head in the sand does not make ideas you don’t like disappear.
This isn’t the first time that Simon Langton has had a brush with the media. A year ago, the school faced criticism for inviting ex-pupil Milo Yiannopoulos to speak. In the end, the backlash paid off, and the invite to Yiannopoulos was revoked. This was a pity, and a group of students (including myself) wrote an open letter explaining why allowing him to speak would have meant his ‘arguments could be laid out in the open, to stand and fall on their own merits, and to be challenged with reason and civil debate rather than hysterics and censorship.’ It is good to see Simon Langton sticking to these principles.
After all, a desire to listen and discuss controversial ideas does not make you racist, homophobic, xenophobic, or sexist. It makes you a student who is willing to learn. Aristotle said ‘it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it’. To assume that pupils will expose themselves to these topics and immediately become indoctrinated is absurd. These ideas still exist whether or not they are discussed at our schools or universities. It is better that they are approached in a place that encourages critical analysis, rather than that people encounter them alone on a dark corner of the internet, risking individual radicalisation through lack of opposition.
Some argue that it is unnecessary to debate a topic that has already been concluded as inherently wrong. However, many people may have never had the chance to learn why something has been determined as such. Yes, texts like Mein Kampf might be foul. But we should still be able to find out for ourselves why that is and discuss them in the light of day.
In times where being free to question new orthodoxies is becoming more and more risky, allowing youngsters to properly think through ideas has never been more crucial. So the school’s decision to create an ‘unsafe space’ is worthy of praise rather than condemnation. Good on Simon Langton for treating pupils as adults. It’s time for more schools to ignore the backlash and do the same.
Melissa Orr is a former pupil at Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys