Word & Song by Anthony Esolen
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When Richard Henry Dana, of the brave Harvard University that used to be, decided to cure his bad eyesight by the salt-sea treatment, he signed up for a two year stint on a ship, and hence we have his terrific journal notes and travelogue, Two Years Before the Mast. He did not want a SAFE space. No fun in that.   

“A First Rate Man-of-War Driven Onto a Reef of Rocks, Floundering in a Gale,” George Philip Reinagle. Public Domain.

Horatio Storer, the father of gynecology in America, was another Harvard man, and he spent one of his winters, when he was just an adventurous seventeen year old boy, on a schooner that sailed the cold waters around Labrador and the Grand Banks. He wrote home about attending a Methodist service around Christmastime, just on the mainland side of the Strait of Canso — close to my family's summer house in an old fishing village in Cape Breton. Of course it was not SAFE. Winter sailing never was. Storer was a Quaker then; he would later become a Roman Catholic, but not before he went on a crusade against induced abortion (the word "abortion" meant "miscarriage," so the adjective was necessary). His letters home from a Quaker boarding school on Cape Cod show a boy among other boys who were determined not to be SAFE, but to do things — they had the freedom of the coast and of the town six miles away, when school was out. They’d walk miles to see the skeleton of a big creature washed up on shore. They’d build a log cabin when they had a free day. They weren’t SAFE. They were free.

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The first time I taught Plato's Symposium to college freshmen, almost 30 years ago, the phrase SAFE SEX was all the rage. I said that the last thing erotic love could be or should be was SAFE. World-upsetting, soul-shaking, immensely good or immensely wicked, transforming the spirit to seek the noblest aims -- any of those things, yes, but SAFE, never. "Safety kills," I said.

I cannot see how the "SAFE space" can coexist with genuine education. You have to be willing to enter the arena of hard thought, argument, evidence, authority — and that is not SAFE, nor should it be. I don't mean that education always has to be a deadly fight. But the insistence that it be SAFE for your opinions or your feelings — that is silly. It can't be. Maybe we should divide colleges into two self-professed categories: SAFE places and ARENAS. Take your pick.

It seems to me that the word SAFE has slid in meaning, so that now it suggests what is SECURE from any encountering any threat, real or perceived. The words are close, but not synonymous. If you are SECURE, you need not trouble yourself; you are free of CARE (Latin CURA). But originally, SAFE had a fuller, more robust meaning. It meant that you were SAVED: you were in danger, but now you are all right. "SAFE!" cries the umpire. The word comes into English from Latin, through French: Latin SALVUS, SAVED, that is, MADE WHOLE. It is related to words having to do with what is SOLID, what has HEALTH (Latin SALUS). The S-H split in two branches of our Indo-European family gives us Greek HOLOS, ENTIRE, WHOLE (English WHOLE and Greek HOLOS are NOT related, and the W is etymologically incorrect and not original). From HOLOS we get such words as HOLISTIC, HOLOGRAM, and -- after the prefix KATA-, CATHOLIC, meaning UNIVERSAL, WHOLE.

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Word & Song is an online magazine devoted to reclaiming the good, the beautiful, and the true. We publish six essays each week, on words, classic hymn, poems, films, and popular songs, as well a weekly podcast, alternately Poetry Aloud or Anthony Esolen Speaks. To support this project, please join us as a free or paid subscriber.

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