Journal of Adult Development

, Volume 11, Issue 2, pp 87-101

First online:

Intellectual Safety, Moral Atmosphere, and Epistemology in College Classrooms

  • Dawn E. SchraderAffiliated withDepartment of Education, Cornell University Email author 

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Students report feeling safe to express and challenge their beliefs and assumptions in some classrooms and interactions but not in others. This paper proposes a definition of intellectual safety derived from student responses to their experience of safety or threat in college classrooms, and explores students' experience of intellectual safety in relation to epistemological development. Intellectual safety defined here has two components: epistemic “fit” or lack of fit between student and professor's epistemology, and moral climate. Students can be challenged in their world-views and feel either threatened, unsafe, and uncomfortable, or supported and safe despite possible discomfort. Experiencing an intellectually safe moral climate may create conditions and opportunities for epistemological reflection and change. Using concepts from moral theory, including moral type and moral perspectives of justice and care, I describe features of an intellectually safe moral climate during the cognitively and emotionally difficult time of epistemological development.

moral atmosphere epistemology college student development intellectual safety intellectual development