“The Coddling of the American Mind”

August 13, 2015

By Eugene Volokh at The Washington Post

That’s the title of a new article in The Atlantic about universities, “trigger warnings,” “microaggressions,” and more, by Greg Lukianoff (president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) and Jonathan Haidt (a social psychologist and professor at NYU). Very much worth reading; here’s an excerpt (some paragraph breaks added):

The current movement [to, for instance, prevent “microaggressions” and require “trigger warnings,”] is largely about emotional well-being. More than the last [movement to restrict speech on campus], it presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into “safe spaces” where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable.

And more than the last, this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally. You might call this impulse vindictive protectiveness. It is creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.

We have been studying this development for a while now, with rising alarm…. The dangers that these trends pose to scholarship and to the quality of American universities are significant; we could write a whole essay detailing them.

But in this essay we focus on a different question: What are the effects of this new protectiveness on the students themselves? Does it benefit the people it is supposed to help? What exactly are students learning when they spend four years or more in a community that polices unintentional slights, places warning labels on works of classic literature, and in many other ways conveys the sense that words can be forms of violence that require strict control by campus authorities, who are expected to act as both protectors and prosecutors? …

[Vindictive protectiveness] prepares [students] poorly for professional life, which often demands intellectual engagement with people and ideas one might find uncongenial or wrong.

The harm may be more immediate, too. A campus culture devoted to policing speech and punishing speakers 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. The new protectiveness may be teaching students to think pathologically.