This past month “The Atlantic” ran a great article about a disturbing trend that is occurring across America’s college and universities entitled “The Coddling of the American Mind.” Authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt looked at how across the nation, college students are looking for emotional protection from words and ideas they don’t like. In effect, this negates true debate, discussion, and educational takeaways from the classroom, and possibly even increases anxiety around sensitive topics, counter to their aims. It helps to look at this whole phenomenon more closely , ask what is driving this trend, and why is those damaging to higher education?
Currently colleges and universities can be perceived as places where professors and students are walking around on their educational tiptoes. This is evidenced by professors being asked to not bring up certain terms or discuss certain works of literature, in the event that a student has experienced a trauma around the concept. For example, the authors give the example of how Harvard law students asked their professors not to discuss rape law, lest a fellow student was raped. At another university, students suggested that The Great Gatsby not be read, lest some students would be harmed by its portrayal of misogyny and physical abuse. It is further illustrated by professors being trained to be on alert for microagressions. These are small words or actions that seem to be innocuous, but are then later thought of as a kind of a violence nonetheless. Lastly and perhaps so strangely to anyone who went to college and university during a previous time, professors are being told to issue trigger warning or alerts if something they teach in a course may illicit strong emotional response. Professors are being asked to watch their words and their students words, so no one goes away feeling harmed after class. The slightest, most accident slight can be met with punishment for them or for a student. What happened to higher education being a place that scintillated your senses and provoked thought?
The authors state that this trend is being led by students who want protection for their emotional well-being and punishment for anyone who undermines it. But what has driven this attitude? The authors discuss that some see this as an outgrowth of political correctness gone too far. They also speculate that it is a generation who is use to such protection across the board, often having helicopter parents that did the “protecting,” prior to college and university (and may still do so). They point to the great and increasing tides of political polarization that characterize are country right now. When people of disparate viewpoints are in the same space, there is often verbal sparring. But there is also downright hostility. They discuss how college students today are not just digital natives, but what they call “social media natives,” and how this sense of power and voice from online forums, Facebook and the like, have help change the power structure between professors and students, giving students the upper hand. They suggest that some individuals’ interpretations of US Federal antidiscrimination laws may make them feel more discriminated against or harmed by words than in any other generation. Lastly, they point to the increased rates of self-reported anxiety on college campuses and how campuses in some ways really are becoming more emotionally vulnerable places.
These events are of course damaging to higher education. When the exchange of ideas is limited, so is the degree of learning that occurs. When we demonize the discussion and exploration of controversial topics, we diminish what can be gained by discussion and insight. This may also serve to increase the serving of anxiety and depression that those who do not want to discuss these issues face, by creating a large, general uneasiness about the subject in general. It also contribute to a general overall hostility on campuses when there is anxiety and disagreement over what should be discussed –what’s appropriate, and what might “harm” students as they learn. In my estimate, we are going backwards rather than forwards here.
The authors argue that Department of Education should release colleges and universities from the fear of unreasonable investigation and sanctions by applying the Davis Standard for discrimination cases. This basically asks colleges and universities to show a long entrenched pattern of harassment and discrimination, as opposed to one offense, that interferes with a student’s ability to access education. They implore colleges and universities to do everything possible to balance of freedom of speech, while making every student feel welcome. They say they must abolish the use of trigger warnings across campuses and borrow a quote from the American Association of University Professors who call this a threat to intellect challenge and both “infantilizing and anti-intellectual.” Lastly, they state while there is great value to teaching culturally sensitivity on college campuses, there is also great need to teach students what to do when other individuals’ thoughts conflict with their own.
Lukianoff and Haidt state that by teaching tenets of cognitive behavior therapy a student learns to look at something that angered them, how their thoughts might be distorted around the issue, and applying “evidence” to counter their distortions, they can then look at their beliefs and feelings more concretely and fully. This would go far in reducing anxiety, intolerance, and hostility that runs high and sweeps fast on many campuses. Difference of course is present beyond colleges and universities, and is part of work, community, and political life. How better off we would all be if we accept these differences, allow meaningful debate, fully examine issues, even if we disagree with all their sides, and truly discuss, debate, and learn. Fear breeds further fear, anxiety, misguided feeling…not learning…. Fear and learning such as this translates to a great damage to our higher learning, the workplace, community, and democracy at large!