Coddled Collegians

A new essay in the Atlantic is making the rounds among those interested in life on American campuses. “The Coddling of the American Mind,” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, announces that “something strange is  happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.”

Lukianoff (a lawyer) and Haidt (a social psychologist) argue that in a misguided effort to create “’safe spaces’ where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable,” colleges have embraced an ethic of “vindictive protectiveness,” attempting to safeguard students by punishing those—students and professors alike—who violate expressive norms derived from progressive political values. Such protectiveness, Lukianoff and Haidt argue, is a poor preparation for professional life. Worse, it “is likely to engender patterns of thought that are surprisingly similar to those long identified by cognitive behavioral therapists as causes of depression and anxiety.”  Political correctness, in other words, may teach young people “to think pathologically.”

Essays of this type typically summon anecdotes to convey a dismaying sense of enforced conformity in the academy, and “The Coddling” doesn’t disappoint. There are the students who ask their law professor not to lecture on rape law, or even use the word “violate,” for fear of the distress it might provoke in class. Or those who call for attaching thematic “trigger warnings” to such books as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (racial violence) F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (misogyny, physical abuse), “so that students who have been previously victimized by racism or domestic violence can choose to avoid these works, which they believe might ‘trigger’ a recurrence of past trauma.” Haidt mentions that in a class of his own, at NYU’s business school, he was discussing Odysseus and showed a painting of the Sirens—whereupon a student complained that the image of topless mermaids “was degrading to women, and that I was insensitive for showing it.” And then there was “Hump Day” at the University of St. Thomas, modeled on the popular GEICO ad, where the option to pet a live camel was deemed insensitive to people of Middle Eastern descent—and the group behind the event announced its cancellation because “the program [was] dividing people and would make for an uncomfortable and possibly unsafe environment.”

How did we get to this point? The authors cite a number of factors: overprotective parents and the end of the “free range” childhood; sharpened ideological polarization and hostile invective in the larger political world; social media, with its powerful modalities of shunning and solidarity—and its leverage, via online evaluations and viral denunciations, on the professoriat; and rising rates of mental illness (especially anxiety) among young people. They argue that excesses of political correctness have also been abetted by the federal government, which in 2013 broadened the definition of sexual harassment from speech that “a reasonable person” would find “objectively offensive” to speech that is simply “unwelcome.” Fearing federal investigation, universities are now applying that standard “not just to sex, but to race, religion, and veteran status as well. Everyone is supposed to rely upon his or her own subjective feelings to decide whether a comment by a professor or a fellow student is unwelcome, and therefore grounds for a harassment claim.”

What distinguishes this essay from the many other salvos in the campus culture wars is its explicitly psychological framework. Instead of taking a freedom-of-speech or quality-of-education approach to the topic of political correctness, Lukianoff and Haidt mount their critique via a mental-health one. Specifically, they use the lens of cognitive behavioral therapy to examine prevailing campus discourse for the kinds of “thought distortions” that CBT identifies: emotional reasoning (“I feel it, therefore it must be true”); demonization, which they identify with the cognitive error of “mental filtering,” or an exclusive focus on negatives, that they perceive at work in last year’s disinvitations of Christine Lagarde and Condi Rice as commencement speakers; and microaggression, which authors label a form of “magnification”—essentially, the mistake of exaggerating the significance of something. “The recent collegiate trend of uncovering allegedly racist, sexist, classist, or otherwise discriminatory microaggressions doesn’t incidentally teach students to focus on small or accidental slights,” they write. “Its purpose is to get students to focus on them and then relabel the people who have made such remarks as aggressors.”

Haidt and Lukianoff worry that today’s protective-vindictive campus restricts intellectual exchange (they point to the stifling effect on professors called before deans for including “triggering” material in lectures—a not infrequent event in what one academic friend of mine calls “a therapeutic culture turned Nazi.”) But their main concern is the effect on students themselves. Today’s colleges, in their view, are doing the very opposite of what is healthy for young people being trained for adulthood.  (Instead of trigger warnings on challenging texts, for instance, they recommend “exposure therapy”—since habituation, rather than avoidance, is the correct way to come to terms with frightening experiences.) Campus speech codes, they argue, conduce to “a constant state of outrage, even toward well-meaning speakers trying to engage in genuine discussion,” while nurturing a “hypersensitivity... that will damage their careers and friendships, along with their mental health.”

Are they being alarmist? Or are they right? I share both their skepticism about the notion that “novels illustrating classism and privilege could provoke or reactivate the kind of terror that is typically implicated in PTSD” and their suspicion that trigger warnings are ultimately (and disingenuously) intended to proscribe “a long list of ideas and attitudes that some students find politically offensive, in the name of preventing other students from being harmed.” But I wonder what Haidt and Lukianoff themselves are really after. Their essay brings to mind Christopher Lasch’s Culture of Narcissism, which similarly deployed psychiatric diagnosis in a broad-ranging social and political critique (one I was sympathetic to). Do Haidt and Lukianoff have an ulterior agenda? If so, what is it?

For me, perhaps the most perplexing question raised by “Coddling” is how to view the relationship between college campuses and the nation beyond. Vast swaths of America remain distressed by poverty, inequality, crime, racial bias in housing and jobs, and a whole host of other problems that do not receive enough attention (let alone action). At your typical elite liberal arts college, meanwhile—where life in comparison seems like a paradise of equality, opportunity and deference—charges of institutional racism/sexism/classism proliferate, and every interaction and utterance is scrutinized for the slightest conceivable offense. I find this confusing. Viewing America at large, I feel like a Marxist; looking at the colleges, I feel like George Will. Is it them, or me? Does the hypercritical discourse on the campuses portend a more progressive way of assessing and addressing the problems of society at large, or is it a kind of indulgent flight from those very problems? What exactly is the relationship between the ever-tightening norms on college campuses, and the rambling chaos of American society beyond?

This essay’s title echoes Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind,” that surprise runaway bestseller of the 1980s. Bloom held that ideological and deconstructionist approaches to liberal-arts education had gutted the humanities’ traditional core focus, both canonically (the Great Books) and philosophically (the Big Questions); politics had replaced philosophy, commitment had eradicated inquiry. His book was both cranky and, in places, crankish (children of divorced parents, Bloom asserted, are less well suited to intellectual life than those from intact families), and Haidt and Lukianoff’s views have a similar tinge of eccentricity. The celebration of cognitive behavioral training as a foundation stone of Western civilization, for instance (“a modern embodiment... of ancient wisdom”), is a weird piece of revisionism, to say the least. And the suggestion that this ancient wisdom be deployed on today’s campuses—“Why not teach incoming students how to practice cognitive behavioral therapy?”—is either mischievous, or a bit daft.

A final thought. Until just now I hadn’t really seen this entry as related to my last one, about hovering parents of young children. But maybe what Haidt and Lukianoff are complaining about is the helicopter approach—the all-present, all-solving parental figures, making dangers go away and keeping their kids safe—writ large across our colleges and universities.

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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