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The New Republic Misses the Point of The Coddling of the American Mind

In response to the cover story of the September issue of The Atlantic, The Coddling of the American Mind: In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, The New Republic ran a piece by Aaron R. Hanlon called The Trigger Warning Myth: Coddled students aren’t the cause of a mental health crisis on campus. They’re just pawns in the culture wars.

Hanlon says “The trigger warning problem isn’t actually a trigger warning problem; it’s what happens when the messy business of teaching and learning, and the complex challenges to students’ mental wellbeing, become flashpoints in the culture wars.” And “That trigger warnings are rare, and may be of occasional benefit to professors like me who employ them, is too inconvenient a reality for those who are busy waging war on political correctness.”

It’s a clever attempt at minimization and blame shifting, but it doesn’t fly.

Haidt and Lukianoff agree with Hanlon that trigger warnings may sometimes be appropriate, and say in their article that “Professors should be free to use trigger warnings if they choose to do so.”

And Hanlon is right that “The trigger warning problem isn’t actually a trigger warning problem; it’s what happens when the messy business of teaching and learning, and the complex challenges to students’ mental wellbeing, become flashpoints in the culture wars.”

In fact, that’s the point of The Coddling of the American Mind.

The inconvenient truth that Hanlon seems to miss is that the reason the trend Haidt and Lukianoff are describing is “a flashpoint in the culture wars” is that it is a trend toward closing minds rather than opening them; and a trend toward small mindedness and cognitive distortions rather than toward critical thinking and intellectual honesty. In short, it’s a trend toward precisely the opposite of what universities are supposed to provide. It seems that Allan Bloom significantly underestimated the problem he described in “The Closing of the American Mind” almost thirty years ago. I’d venture it’s no coincidence that the title of Haidt and Lukianoff’s piece differs from Bloom’s by only one word.

The title of Megan McArdle’s piece on this topic is spot on: Sheltered Students Go To College, Avoid Education.

Here’s are a four paragraphs from different sections of “The Coddling of the American Mind” by Haidt and Lukianoff.

“The current movement is largely about emotional well-being. More than the last, 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.”

“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?”

“There’s a saying common in education circles: Don’t teach students what to think; teach them how to think. The idea goes back at least as far as Socrates. Today, what we call the Socratic method is a way of teaching that fosters critical thinking, in part by encouraging students to question their own unexamined beliefs, as well as the received wisdom of those around them. Such questioning sometimes leads to discomfort, and even to anger, on the way to understanding.

But vindictive protectiveness teaches students to think in a very different way. It prepares them 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.”



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