This article appeared in The Atlantic.
In January 2008, after I moved from Philadelphia to New York City to be surrounded by family and friends, I started seeing a therapist who practiced cognitive behavioral therapy, and began to turn a corner. I eventually learned to question irrationally negative thoughts about myself, the people I encountered, the future. Since then, my battles with depression have become winnable skirmishes.
As I was learning to identify distortions in my own thinking, I began to recognize them in the thinking of others. The organization I lead, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, supports free-speech rights on campus. One case that was much on my mind had taken place in the fall of 2007. At the University of Delaware, as part of a diversity-focused orientation program, students reported being made to “take a stance” on one side of a room or another, displaying their personal views on polarizing topics such as affirmative action and gay marriage—even if they didn’t yet know where they stood. Such an activity is not only reductive and unscholarly, it is a classic demonstration of the all-or-nothing thinking I had struggled with.
I began to wonder whether campus culture, more generally, was coaxing students toward distorted thinking. And I began to wonder whether distorted thinking patterns were not only interfering with truth-seeking, but also perhaps leading to a worsening of student mental health. I took this question to my friend, the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt.
Jonathan Haidt’s Story
I have studied moral psychology for 28 years. During that time, the American left and right have become like different countries, perpetually at odds. Each side has its own values, of course, but increasingly its own facts, too—about history, economics, climate science. In 2012, I published my most recent book, The Righteous Mind, in the hope that if Americans understood the biases that affect their everyday moral thinking, they might be able to understand one another better.
I recently became particularly alarmed by reports about new moralistic trends on college campuses. I began reading about trigger warnings and microaggressions in the spring of 2014, and just weeks later, I started encountering these issues in my own teaching at New York University.
For example, to prepare students for a class discussion on wisdom, I assigned a magazine article that described the dilemmas a physician faced as one of his patients was dying of cancer. A student complained (in the homework assignment) that I should have included a trigger warning, so that students who had lost a relative to cancer could steer clear of the article. In another course, I lectured on weakness of the will, and I described Ulysses’s wise leadership in tying himself to the mast of his ship, so he could resist the Sirens’ song. I showed a painting of the scene in which the Sirens try but fail to lure Ulysses and his men to their death. Like most mermaids, the Sirens in the painting are topless, and this led to a complaint (in my teaching evaluations) that the painting was degrading to women, and that I was insensitive for showing it.
Most of my students are not so easily offended. But the relationship of trust between professors and students seems to be weakening as more students become monitors for microaggressions.
I don’t mind if students complain directly to me. Each lecture involves hundreds of small decisions, and sometimes I do choose the wrong word or analogy. But nowadays, e-mail and social media make it easier for students to complain directly to campus authorities, or to the Internet at large, than to come talk with their professors. Each complaint can lead to many rounds of meetings, and sometimes to formal charges and investigations.
I had been wondering why things seemed to be getting worse so quickly. Then one day last year, Greg Lukianoff came to me with his diagnosis: colleges themselves may be inadvertently teaching distorted thinking. I saw the close connection to moral psychology, and offered to write this essay with him.