What do we mean when we talk about "safe space"? A philosophical exploration of a contentious metaphor in education

Thesis type
(Thesis) Ph.D.
Date created
Educators have described their classes and institutions as "safe spaces" with increasing frequency and certainty since the 1990s. However, philosophers of education such as Eamon Callan, Cris Mayo, and Sigal Ben-Porath have found "safe space" to be conceptually and pedagogically lacking when interpreted from intersectional positionalities operating within the hegemonic white, masculine, and consumerist discourses permeating a modern educational system that strives for greater equity, diversity, and inclusion. This work operationalizes "safe space" by recognizing it as what linguists Max Black, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, and philosopher Paul Ricoeur would term a conceptual metaphor, which structures thinking about education. Critical pedagogues such as Michael Apple, Raymond Callahan, Paulo Freire, Ivan Illich, Herbert Kliebard, and Peter McLaren have argued how this type of structured thinking can influence pedagogical practices; but to date, no in-depth philosophical analysis of "safe space" exists in the literature. Interrogating modern debates about the nature of "space" inherited from Isaac Newton (who viewed it as an absolute container filled with independent subjects/objects), and Gottfried Leibniz (who viewed space as an infinite set of relations between subjects/objects), the implications for any educationally worthwhile understanding and practice of "safety" or "safe space" are shown to be suspect due to the Newtonian inheritances. Ultimately, I posit that "safe space" is unavoidably Newtonian – assumed to be capable of formulation a priori such that students are entitled to a guarantee that a class space will be safe in some sense that can be unambiguously stated, irrespective of who is taking the class, what the class is about, and what is going on in the world. This a priori safe space is then one that institutions feel responsible for guaranteeing, teachers feel responsible for creating and maintaining, with students feeling no responsibility other than reaping its benefits. Linking this work's conceptual analysis of the Leibnizian inheritances to "space" and "safety" (understood as infinitely relational) to that of critical pedagogues such as bell hooks, I argue for a more philosophically grounded and educationally worthwhile understanding of "safe space".
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Thesis advisor: O'Neill, Kevin
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