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    A blog by Eboo Patel, Mary Ellen Giess and Tony Banout that looks at identity and diversity issues from multiple angles.


When Educational Leaders Invoke 'Safety'

In a diverse democracy, education ought to be about learning and building relationships across lines of difference. Does invoking the concept safety help facilitate either of those goals?

February 21, 2019

Two uses of the concept “safety” by educational leaders in recent weeks caught my eye.

The first was by the headmistress of the Sheridan School (a progressive educational institution in a tony part of the nation’s capital) who cancelled athletic competitions with nearby Immanuel Christian School because the latter had anti-LGBTQ policies that they based on their Christian faith, which she said made some of her students feel “unsafe”.

The second was by Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, the Founder and President of Zaytuna, the nation’s first Muslim liberal arts college, who said that institutions like his were necessary because “just having safe places where people that actually are devotional can come to and not be offended, I think that’s extremely important.”

It is noteworthy that Shaykh Hamza (who is a friend, a mentor and someone I admire, though disagree with on some important matters) made his comments on a panel with the Presidents of BYU and Yeshiva University at a conference of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU). In other words, it was not theological or political disagreement that Shaykh Hamza deemed unsafe – there was plenty of that to be found in that room. Instead, what many of those people share, amidst their theological and political disagreements, is the sense that people with ‘orthodox faith’ face a hostile culture, a culture that will happily affirm gay rights and a range of sexual expression but ridicule religion. The concern is so stark that it merits the invocation of the concept of “safety”.

So we find ourselves in a situation where educational institutions who support LGBT sexual expressions deem educational institutions who don’t ‘unsafe’; and educational institutions who hew to “orthodox religion”, (which these days is most noted in public because of tensions around matters sexual, but obviously has ethical and intellectual traditions that are wider and deeper, most of which are ignored by the media) return the sentiment in kind.

Does the fear serve an educational purpose? I think not. A recent piece by Peter Wehner does a good job of explaining why. Wehner was a longtime Republican operative who very publicly left the party because of his disgust at the vulgarity, ego-mania and ignorance of Donald Trump. In this Atlantic article, he reflects on what he’s learned now that he’s expanded his group of friends and colleagues beyond narrow partisan circles. As Wehner puts it, “One can see certain things from outside the silo that one cannot see within it.” 

He proceeds from there to comment on education more directly: “When we’re part of a team, we have a natural tendency to let our sympathies shape our views and opinions of others. As a result, we perceive the world differently, often more narrowly and sometimes incorrectly.” 

It seems to me that the purpose of education, from the Sheridan School to Zaytuna College and beyond, is to perceive the world as broadly and correctly as possible. If students at Sheridan School are being taught that places with anti-LGBT policies are unsafe, it means that they can’t travel to the vast majority of nations around the world. That is a narrowness that serves no one.

On the notion of “safety” … I happen to know the culture of both of these worlds quite well. I spoke at the very same CCCU conference last year, and I’ve spoken at several CCCU colleges in the past, including Baylor, Calvin, Wheaton and Bethel. I’ve also visited at least as many progressive private K-12 schools, the kind where the Diversity Director hands out rainbow flag pins to students in the hallway, and given presentations at several private school conferences.

When it comes to safety, my warm and welcoming experiences in both environments has led me to believe that I’d be equally protected in both worlds. I firmly believe that the president of a conservative religious college (Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or otherwise) would jump in front of a bus to save my life, and I have no doubt a progressive high school principal would do the same. I would leave my wallet overnight in either place and expect it to have all my cash and credit cards the next morning.

In fact, the warmth and welcome that I’ve experienced in the one world reminds me of the warmth and welcome I’ve received in the other, and as an Ismaili Muslim I am a minority in all of those places.

So why are they afraid of each other?

And why, of all things, would athletic competitions be cancelled? If nations that are at the brink of war can use athletics to build a relationship across a deep divide, one would think that schools with different policies regarding sexual expression in the same general geography could find a way to do the same. In fact, the whole purpose of such spaces is to highlight something that is essential to a diverse democracy: we can disagree on some fundamental things, and still work together on others. 

When we declare a space unsafe, it means that we view those people as a threat.

There is a story that Martin Marty tells in his book When Faiths Collide, of Westerners in medieval times who would create maps with Europe at the center and write the words ‘HERE BE MONSTERS’ everywhere else.

Is this the business that educational leaders want to be in in 21st Century America?



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Eboo Patel

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