Social Update: Keeping Feelings Out - the Safest Space

Nisian Hughes

Nisian Hughes

Are we creating a culture that favors feel-good emotions over critical discourse? If you are like me, you are regularly admonished for speaking your mind. It is not to say I am offensive. Instead, I value difficult discussions—discomfort gets my neurons firing. As I turn outward toward my peers and the public, I get the sense this rush of excitement is not mutual. I look back to the last two decades and wonder if policy significantly undercut behavioral outcomes or rather, emotional intelligence. Let’s revisit some of these policies.

If at first you don’t succeed…try, try, try again?

Beginning in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, there was a tremendous focus on restructuring education into a standards-based format, primarily focused on academics. Two major initiatives took center stage: Improving America’s School’s Act of 1994 (IASA) and the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB). IASA became federal law during the Clinton administration and aimed to mitigate the achievement gap phenomenon, where non-minority students outperformed their minority counterparts by wide margins. The idea was simple--create standards and evaluate improvements over time. Unfortunately, this legislation fell short in implementation since schools were ill-equipped to implement vague federal recommendations. In addition, states were tasked to create their own standards, which varied in both content and rigor. To make matters worse, the data was aggregated in a way that prevented determining outcomes between racial communities, the raison d’être. The Bush Administration addressed this shortcoming with the enactment of the NCLB. This time around, various subgroups (race/ethnicity, English-language learners, etc.) could be tracked and academic standards were developed. Still, standards varied in rigor from state to state.

While some of the deficiencies are being tackled by the Obama Administration’s Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 (ESSA), are we better off? The achievement gap may have decreased, but according to the results from the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment, the United States ranked 27th out of 34 countries with average scores in reading and science, and below average in mathematics. Twenty-two years later and we are still trying to get it right. If by global standards we are far behind academically, how are we emotionally? After all, emotional intelligence has not been the focus of these initiatives. 

Shifting the balance

In recent years, many states have implemented social and emotional learning standards (SELs). Standards include character education, ethics, and civic values among others. Until recently, these standards lacked a mechanism of implementation. However, Tennessee and seven other states are working collaboratively to implement SELs into the K-12 curricula. These early pilot programs will dictate the effectiveness of such standards. At first glance, implementation of these so-called ‘soft-skills’ has led to gains in emotional well-being as well as academic success in Tennessee. Whether these changes will lead to systemic gains is yet to be determined.

Importantly, how will these measures affect the next generation of college-ready or career-ready students? Will they be better equipped to handle themselves in a collegiate or workplace environment? At what point did character building at home become insufficient? Some critics reject these policies as another attempt at failed education initiatives. I look around at my peers that struggle to communicate in diverse settings and wonder if this initiative would have helped. Do they lack social and emotional skills because of the overwhelming focus on academics during the last twenty years? Does this explain the obsession with creating safe spaces, especially in academia and now in K-12? The turmoil that we see in the media may reflect this deficiency.

Coloreds only, no whites allowed

Students at Pitzer College in Claremont, California recently came under fire after posting an ad for a roommate that called for ‘people of color’ only. After being covered by many media outlets, the school responded both by denouncing the ad and by supporting the choice to create a safe space--two ideas that are at odds with one another. On one hand, prejudice under the guise of creating a safe space was deemed unacceptable. On the other hand, the students were praised for making the campus a safer community. Indeed, it is confusing what message the campus administration is trying to send. Ultimately, what is the goal of creating an artificial environment, where ideas aren’t challenged? Furthermore, are the students setting themselves up for failure as they prepare for the job market? After all, employers place communication skills and ability to work in a team at the top of the list of most desirable attributes--in stark contrast to their very public housing ad.

As safe spaces begin to crop up in K-12, I cannot help but think that these initiatives may undermine the goals it sets out to achieve. In practice, safe spaces don’t promote a forum where ideas are exchanged equitably, especially if the participants are ill-equipped to mediate the exchange. This is exactly what has happened for the past twenty years with the academic outcomes in K-12. By and large, teachers lacked the technical expertise to teach the standards at a high enough level to increase test-based performances. In part, this is why funding toward professional development for K-12 teachers has intensified. How do we expect social and emotional learning to take place when these same teachers lack training in cognitive science or adolescent psychology? It will be interesting to see how these pilot-programs perform.

In my experiences in academia, I too have witnessed the desire to create safe spaces. As part of a team to promote diversity at all levels, I met with students and faculty from diverse backgrounds to discuss ways to achieve this goal. Or so I thought. Instead, in my stint with the group, I found the bombastic few tended to focus on issues of white-privilege, microagressions, and creating a safe space rather than coming up with policy ideas. While at first I found these issues thought provoking, I later learned this forum is where the most important type of diversity comes to die--diversity of opinion.

In theory, the SELs may provide a training ground for people to engage one another in a diplomatic and critical manner. In practice, I have found it more useful to tell others that I am concerned more about the facts of an issue rather than their feelings. We both walk away having learned something without offending each other. To me, this is a much safer space.