The Coddling of the American Mind

Lukianoff and Haidt Write About A Destructive Educational Trend

The September 2015 issue of The Atlantic features a disturbing article by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt entitled “The Coddling of the American Mind.”  Subtitled “How Trigger Warnings Are Hurting Mental Health on Campus,” the authors identify, explore and highlight a current trend in higher education that they believe threatens the mental health of students and the very essence of learning that my generation, at least, would consider fundamental to what college is all about: Intellectual challenge and debate.

They begin their article by talking about microaggressions, a new buzz word on campuses that is resulting in institutional policies to ‘protect’ students from having their feelings hurt.  In an example of a faculty training session at the 10 campuses of the University of California, examples of microaggressions to be avoided included “American is the land of opportunity” and “I believe the most qualified person should get the job.”  In drawing a distinction between the past political correctness movement “(avoiding hate speech aimed at marginalized groups)” they suggest this trend is about “emotional well-being” in which the concern is a presumption of “an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm.”

Vindictive Protectiveness Threatens Intellectual Rigor

In attempting to turn campuses into “safe places” by shielding students from any expressions of print or speech that might be upsetting, “this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally.”  They call this “vindictive protectiveness” and their article shows how this movement is threatening the intellectual climate of higher education.

They then offer insights into how this kind of vindictive protectiveness affects students if they spend several years in a climate where the academic community protects them from slights of any kind–a bubble of sheltered protectiveness that would be the envy of  every helicopter parent in America.  But in doing so, it prevents academics from requiring students to learn how to think critically and examine their own beliefs.  The authors suggest this results in “teaching students to think pathologically.”

Tracing the development of this trend, they identify societal changes during my lifetime that have led to creating an expectation among this generation of college students that adults will protect them from all forms of harm–from playgrounds, the foods they eat in school cafeterias, from one another, and from ideas that they might find disagreeable.  And they note that the political polarization in society shows up as increasing hostility toward “ideological opponents,” and this interferes with critical thinking.

“Emotional Reasoning” Replacing Reality and Common Sense

The growing influence and acceptance of emotional reasoning, (“I feel it, therefore it must be true,”) is credited with much of this distorted and destructive thinking.  It might also, in my mind, explain the shallowness of contemporary political debate and the success of politicians and media outlets who gain stature and viewers with claims and reporting that are nothing but innuendo and willful distortion of facts, if not outright lies.  But I digress just a bit.

The authors offer several examples of how far this protectiveness goes.  At a Minnesota university, for example, an event called Hump Day that would have allowed students to pet a camel was canceled because students protested animal cruelty, the money spent, and because it was insensitive to people from the Middle East.  The inspiration for the day likely came from the TV commerical in which a camel walks around an office on Wednesday–something totally devoid of any Middle Eastern context.  This kind of catering to oversensitiveness, in which “I’m offended” becomes “an unbeatable trump card” is showing up again and again on campuses across the nation.

Trigger Warnings Defeat Cognitive Challenges

And the too-frequent requirement on professors to offer “trigger warnings” to students when a reading assignment or lecture might include something offensive is eating into professorial ability to assign content that challenges preconceptions or that deals with contemporary issues or historical truths.  They cite academics who fear complaints from students and warning letters from Deans when they assign material that can be deemed offensive by a student, particularly when they don’t include a trigger warning with the assignment.  For a professor to give an assignment that challenges a student’s preconceptions with an alternate point of view, in such a climate, can result in sanctions on the instructor.

One example I know of in secondary education is how to deal with great pieces of literature that include language that some students or adults feel privileged to complain about.  Hence the study of Tom Sawyer, in which Jim is identified by the n-word, requires a trigger warning in colleges and might be left out of a high school English class.  This American Literature classic is being dropped from syllabi and has also been published in cleansed editions in which language that is today offensive is removed.  This destroys the ability of students to deal with the society Twain writes about–it becomes a children’s story devoid of the impact Twain intended by his carefully crafted language.  And other significant works by authors like James Baldwin or Richard Wright, among others, include language and content that is, at best, controversial and could be interpreted as requiring a trigger warning or elimination from a syllabus.  (I know that my mother would have been shocked at most of Baldwin’s writings.  I’m happy she never read my college assignments or felt entitled to complain to a Dean that I was being emotionally damaged after being intellectually challenged and forced to confront the unfiltered adult world I was about to enter.)

Another literary example (I am, after all, an English Major) is Shakespeare.  If one reads his plays in Shakespearean English, it’s replete with language, innuendo, racial and ethnic references, and story lines with which students today might feel privileged to take offense.  And if one reads Shakespeare translated into modern English, frankly, it loses the depth of color that is his genius.  We usually modernize it for high school students, in part because it masks much of the risque nature of the original, and most high school English teachers gloss over the spicy elements that are still there.  If we ever hear that collegiate English majors are required to skip reading Shakespeare in the original because his words might offend, we should be mightily offended, and those responsible should be hanged, drawn, and quartered in the best of Elizabethan style.

All this brings to mind the workings of various groups in American that seek to clean up American History and make light of, or reinterpret, the impact of European white males who pursued policies that made America great by destroying the lives, cultures and civilizations of those who stood in their way.  How is it that groups feel entitled to whitewash the harsh realities of our history in order to suggest that American Exceptionalism was always a wonderfully positive element of our nation’s past and present?  Yet this happened in states all over the country who protested the proposed new AP American History syllabus, and a compromised version, rewritten to downplay the history I learned in the North in high school and in college, is the result.

Do read this article.  It should upset you at the very least and frighten you if you are an educator faced with this growing collegiate administrative wimpiness.  Up with academic rigor and down with emotional reasoning and vindictive protectiveness.  They are blots on education at every level.

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