If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone refer to a college campus as a bubble, I’d be wealthy enough to pay off some student debt. As college activism becomes more vocalized and documented, people increasingly dismiss colleges as areas with unrealistic “safe spaces” for people not yet ready to face the so-called “real world.” These dismissals provide easy ways to avoid discussing problems or confronting the students demonstrating or speaking up against injustice. By doing so, it decreases a person’s responsibility to face issues and problem-solve, as well as blatantly minimizes students’ voices.
College is a part of the real world. It exists in the world, and nearly all of the same problems that affect the outside world affect the world inside of college. The vast majority of college students are adults — and though we may sometimes act immaturely, we deserve to have our voices heard and respected just as much as any other citizen.
College activism is more important than people tend to believe, and it has always been integral to social justice movements in the United States. Students have always been at the forefront of social justice movements in this country, and in countries across the world. Campuses have been the starting point for more than a few social movements.
For instance, the Free Speech Movement at the University of California’s Berkeley campus in December of 1964 protested the limitations imposed on students’ political activity. In October 1963, 250,000 Chicago public school students boycotted school to protest segregation, and more than 20,000 students marched in the Chicago streets. The dismissal of student-led protests is not only infantilising and anything but constructive, but is also a refusal to acknowledge the historic importance of student activism.
Many people also like to label college students as sheltered. One New York Times story went so far as to say that “college years…have evolved into an extended period of adolescence during which many of today’s students are not saddled with adult responsibilities.”
However, in researching statistics on students with jobs, one paper showed that in 2015, 43 percent of full-time students and 78 percent of part-time students had jobs (). For people who supposedly have no adult responsibilities, having a job while pursuing education seems shockingly responsible. College students are also largely involved in politics, which is another mark of responsibility. One UCLA study on the voter turnout for the 2008 presidential election showed that three-quarters of first-year students in the sample who were eligible to vote did vote in the election, and more than four-fifths of eligible seniors voted.
These statistics, while based on information from a limited sample restricted to US college students, demonstrate a population of students who are much more engaged and less sheltered than some would suggest. To further this point, studies show that 70 percent of college students graduate with an average student loan debt of $38,000 in 2017. These students already have experience in the real world, struggling with debt, working jobs and have other responsibilities, on top of pursuing education. That’s not being sheltered, that’s being an adult.
I often see people mocking safe spaces on college campuses, which are areas designed for marginalized students to exist without facing harassment or discrimination. They are intended to function as a way for students to discuss aspects of their identities that they may face discrimination for, such as their sexual orientation, gender identity, religion and race. The most common negative response I’ve heard regarding safe spaces is, without a doubt, the one that references “the real world,” often both insulting people who use safe spaces and pointing out a major flaw in the way in which society functions.
Often someone will say, “Wait until you get to the real world,” or, “There are no safe spaces in the real world,” implying that the person to whom the comment is directed is naive enough to not realize the negative behaviors will continue to exist outside of college. In these same comments, the criticizer acknowledges that society treats marginalized groups unfairly and does, in fact, have a need for social change to extend the idea of safe spaces to places outside of college campuses.
Even disregarding these flaws in the critique, there’s yet another crucial piece to the argument against these types of comments: The commenter often overlooks the fact that a people using college safe spaces are already part of the so-called real world. People who use these safe spaces are part of the real world and — as that generation comes into power and the anti-safe space people moves out of it (because that’s how life works) — safe spaces won’t cease to exist for people after graduation.
When someone sees a need for something, they typically find a way to create a solution. In this case, that would mean creating safe spaces in the real world because the “real world” does treat marginalized groups unfairly. (“Wait until you get to the real world,” indeed, and then continue to make space for yourself to feel comfortable and free from harassment.)
These people who have been “sheltered” are entering the the so-called real world after graduation, and they will be bringing the values and ideals they developed in college with them. College campuses have historically acted as incubators for social justice movements that have then been spread into the “real world,” and they will continue to be important parts of this country’s and the world’s developments into hopefully more tolerant and accepting societies.