“The Coddling of the American Mind”

Atlantic cover copyThat’s the title of an important new article out this morning in The Atlantic by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt (author of The Righteous Mind, whom whom I’ve discussed here before) and Greg Lukianoff of FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education). Here’s the lede:

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. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.

This is only the beginning of the article’s catalogue of campus craziness, which the authors call, in a great new turn of phrase, “vindictive protectiveness.” But from here the article goes in a new and different direction from most such critiques, arguing powerfully that, like other kinds of social and economic intervention, the current strain of political correctness is having the perverse result of making student mental health worse.

If our universities are teaching students that their emotions can be used effectively as weapons—or at least as evidence in administrative proceedings—then they are teaching students to nurture a kind of hypersensitivity that will lead them into countless drawn-out conflicts in college and beyond. Schools may be training students in thinking styles that will damage their careers and friendships, along with their mental health. . .

The expansive use of trigger warnings may also foster unhealthy mental habits in the vastly larger group of students who do not suffer from PTSD or other anxiety disorders. People acquire their fears not just from their own past experiences, but from social learning as well. If everyone around you acts as though something is dangerous—elevators, certain neighborhoods, novels depicting racism—then you are at risk of acquiring that fear too.

It’s good to have Haidt and Lukianoff on the case in this new way. It’s a long article, but worth the time to get through. It also has several suggestions for reform at the end, the most important of which is probably this one:

The biggest single step in the right direction does not involve faculty or university administrators, but rather the federal government, which should release universities from their fear of unreasonable investigation and sanctions by the Department of Education. Congress should define peer-on-peer harassment according to the Supreme Court’s definition in the 1999 case Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education. The Davis standard holds that a single comment or thoughtless remark by a student does not equal harassment; harassment requires a pattern of objectively offensive behavior by one student that interferes with another student’s access to education. Establishing the Davis standard would help eliminate universities’ impulse to police their students’ speech so carefully.