Comfort and Safety Are Not The Same

On my drive home tonight I heard an interview on NPR (yes, I’m that person) with Roxane Gay and Jonathan Chait discussing whether or no the current college protests are indicative of a repressive regime of political correctness. You can check it out here.

What I couldn’t get over in this debate was when the interviewer asked Dr. Gay about students being coddled.


I mean, Dr. Gay responded in an incredibly gracious way, but what is the urge we keep saying in coverage of college students where safety becomes equated with luxurious comfort and coddling?

I mean, it’s difficult to believe that this needs to be written out but comfort and safety are not the same thing. This is something most people recognize on an intuitive level. One example that springs to mind is when I had ovarian surgery in 2006. I woke up in the hospital at four in the morning. I had an IV and a catheter and then a phlebotomist came in to take a blood sample. I was decidedly not comfortable. But I was very safe.

It’s equally possible to be comfortable and not safe. I think there are at least a dozen Lifetime Original Movies about this: the woman who lives in the lap of luxury but whose family holds a dark secret.

The thing is, students often do their best work, are most willing to be made productively uncomfortable, when they know they are safe. Productive discomfort is essential to learning but so is the knowledge that the student, as a complete person, will be safe. That means physically, psychologically, and emotionally safe at the very least. Individually I cannot guarantee all of these things for my students but I cannot work towards a campus culture that makes these things more likely than not. Which is my job because I want my students to learn.

The idea that a choice must be made between coddling students with politically correct language and a surfeit of trigger warnings and an “toughening them up” by not protecting them at all is a dangerous false dichotomy. There are many, many places in between. Students, and people in general, should not be made uncomfortable just because. There are many types of discomfort that are antithetical to learning and some of these overlap with conditions that are unsafe. However, there is a type of productive discomfort that all learners know. It comes in the moment when you begin to question something you used to believe. That widening of the world is scary, uncomfortable, and very necessary. However, to get to that place safety is an absolute necessity.

Let us not choose between making our students comfortable and making them safe. Let us make sure that they are safe in all ways so that they can be uncomfortable in the best way.

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