09/02/2015 09:46 pm ET Updated Sep 02, 2016

'Coddled Students? That's Not the Problem'

The much-publicized article in the recent Atlantic, "The Coddling of the American Mind," opens by setting off the alarm:

Something strange is happening in 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.

It is rather a stylistic feat to riff off the title of Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students and at the same time begin one's article by mimicking the famous beginning of the Communist Manifesto ("A spectre is haunting Europe -- the spectre of communism"). But that is the intent of the two authors, both conservative voices in American academic circles -- instead of the Red Scare as seen from the eyes of the marshaled forces of reaction in Europe, we have the Coddled Kids Scare as seen from the eyes of two conservative white males.

This is pretty much the kind of exposition you get throughout the article. Watch out, there is a strange, unorganized, undirected, dangerously contagious "movement" sweeping American's colleges and universities, striking fear and loathing into every crevice and causing our American minds to shut close. I, too, have a problem with both trigger warnings and micro-aggression-talk. There is no doubt that both present complex and important challenges to us in terms of how we teach and learn on campus. But this article is of very limited use, and in fact its sensationalism and clear bias do the topic a disservice.

The article cherry-picks and then packages together extreme cases of "trigger warning" and "micro-aggression" over-reaction. The authors, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, couple this with quoting experts who wring their hands over these phenomena. They then blend in paternalistic concern -- if these poor misguided students only knew how their silliness is wreaking havoc with their mental health, let alone terrifying poor unsuspecting professors, as found in the incredibly whiny and therefore immensely popular article "I'm a Liberal Professor and My Liberal Students Terrify Me," (talk about being coddled), and driving college administrators to the golf course and spa to work off the tremors of anxiety produced by messages that glassy-eyed, frothing-at-the-mouth students dispatch over the Internet to administrative inboxes and wave on placards outside admin windows.

In fact, if one actually wanted a vision of the prime Coddled Kid it would have to be Donald Trump, heir to a fortune, who whined piteously about being mistreated by Megyn Kelley simply because she called out his pathological and stupid misogyny and then lashed out against her; and who silenced another journalist, this time a Hispanic male, Jorge Ramos, and had him removed from a press conference simply for supposedly speaking out of turn. If ever there was a basket case of coddling, entitlement, and "hurt feelings" it's the leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination. But I digress.

The issues of trigger warnings, microaggressions, and managerial "campus climate" control are all worthy of more patient thought and analysis than offered in the Atlantic article, but piling on against those who may after all have a legitimate case and excluding the possibility that the foundations of their complaints might be worth considering carefully seems to be the modus operandi these days.

Here is the authors' thesis:

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.

The authors then ask, "how did we get here?" and produce this litany of accusations, some frankly weird:

Childhood itself has changed greatly during the past generation. Many Baby Boomers and Gen Xers can remember riding their bicycles around their hometowns, unchaperoned by adults, by the time they were 8 or 9 years old. In the hours after school, kids were expected to occupy themselves, getting into minor scrapes and learning from their experiences. But "free range" childhood became less common in the 1980s. The surge in crime from the '60s through the early '90s made Baby Boomer parents more protective than their own parents had been. Stories of abducted children appeared more frequently in the news, and in 1984, images of them began showing up on milk cartons. In response, many parents pulled in the reins and worked harder to keep their children safe.

The flight to safety also happened at school. Dangerous play structures were removed from playgrounds; peanut butter was banned from student lunches. After the 1999 Columbine massacre in Colorado, many schools cracked down on bullying, implementing "zero tolerance" policies. In a variety of ways, children born after 1980 -- the Millennials -- got a consistent message from adults: life is dangerous, but adults will do everything in their power to protect you from harm, not just from strangers but from one another as well.

Funny -- most of what they describe sounds like good parenting to me. But most of all, the authors blame "emotional reasoning":

Emotional reasoning dominates many campus debates and discussions. A claim that someone's words are "offensive" is not just an expression of one's own subjective feeling of offendedness. It is, rather, a public charge that the speaker has done something objectively wrong. It is a demand that the speaker apologize or be punished by some authority for committing an offense.

There have always been some people who believe they have a right not to be offended. Yet throughout American history -- from the Victorian era to the free-speech activism of the 1960s and '70s -- radicals have pushed boundaries and mocked prevailing sensibilities. Sometime in the 1980s, however, college campuses began to focus on preventing offensive speech, especially speech that might be hurtful to women or minority groups. The sentiment underpinning this goal was laudable, but it quickly produced some absurd results.

Finally, they come down on the side of Socrates, rather than "emotional reasoning." Recall their endorsement of the Socratic method: "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."

Let me state that the one (and only) point with which I agree with Lukianoff and Haidt is their basic argument for the Socratic method, and I will come back to that later in this essay. My main disagreement with them is that their own strident biases end up, in fact, with a classroom that is un-Socratic in precisely the ways they decry. Those who wish to silence the issues that trigger-warnings and micro-aggressions call attention to are themselves not questioning their "unexamined beliefs," the "received wisdom" that has accommodated precisely sexism, racism, homophobia and more, and the challenges that students and others are bringing forward are making the authors and others quite "uncomfortable" and "angry."

The real task before us is to first widen our inquiry as to what these phenomena point to, not settling for a ready villain and easy fix ("just stop it"), and to try to retrieve precisely the Socratic method, something that has been utterly abandoned, but decidedly not because of trigger warnings and micro-aggression talk.

I am going to suggest two lines of inquiry that we might pursue to get at some other, and I would say more useful ways of looking at these issues. First, contrary to the idea that students have been "coddled" and are stuck in a self-protective rut, I would argue that in fact students have been utterly brutalized well before their entrance to college.

Second, it is always interesting who appoints themselves the proper arbiters of how much speech is to be tolerated and when the limit has to be drawn. Granted, this is a tricky issue, but when we examine the vector of the authors' inquiry, and factor in their own agendas as evident in their prior work and current activities in this area, it is clear that it is those who are decrying racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, and other things who are the ones being told they are being over-reactive. Nowhere is there a mention of the ways protests against the Israeli occupation are being shouted down by students who claim their feelings as Jewish students are being endangered, for example, nor is there any discussion of the ways men on campus are ramping up the charges that women who are protesting sexual harassment and sexual assault are creating a "threatening climate" for males.

We need to delve much deeper into things to see what might be driving these important issues altogether. The focus on feelings and fears and managing both should be seen in a wider optic.

When the authors say that all this attention to trigger-warnings and micro-aggressions points to "an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche" and "therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm," I would want to wonder what gave rise to this general sense of fragility and protection against harm in the first place, and ask if it's entirely fair to blame this just on students and colleges.

It is not college that is to blame for providing some weird environment, absolutely separate from the "real" world, where strange liberal ideas can run amok, spawned by a small group of troubled minds whose strange message has now engulfed us all. The "problem" has to be traced further back. In my opinion these students have, nearly from birth, been gently beaten into insensibility by what we call the "college preparatory system."

Their very ability to navigate their way into college is predicated on their submission to a process of "college preparation" that for all intents and purposes begins with pre-school. It has hyper-organized them and leeched inquiry and experimentation and creativity out of them. They are risk-averse and yet -- and here is the key point -- they are taught to be tough (especially boys) and to stifle their senses of being harmed. Their programming is simply toward greater and greater efficiency, competitiveness, and performance quality.

Besides having driven the fear of experimentation and exploration into students, we have made teachers teach to tests, ingraining in students the idea that only certain kinds of knowledge (or should I say "information") is going to get them ahead, and that lingering too long in unsanctioned and unremunerated ways of thinking can put them behind in the competition. Instead of training teachers to develop intellectual curiosity and risk-taking in students, teachers are themselves measured by how quickly and efficiently they move students through the knowledge mill, and score well on the standardized tests. If students are supposed to emulate teachers, then the educational system right now has created some horrible kinds of behavior for students to model themselves after.

In sum, instead of preparing students for college, and the exciting range of ideas, experiences, and learning opportunities they will face, the "college prep" system has made them utterly incapable of being successful in college in any other than a pre-professional way.

And this leads to exactly the issue we are facing with regard to trigger-warnings and micro-aggressions. When they get to college, students are on their own, away from their families, neighborhoods, high school friends and teachers. On the one hand, they are still on the treadmill. But on the other hand they are exposed to a broader world of knowledge and a diversity of students from sometimes greatly different backgrounds. Some will plow ahead and finish the race expeditiously. But others, for any number of reasons, will try to navigate a more complex world and, God forbid, actually learn something new other than the next algorithm.

They will want to actually explore and investigate a broader set of beliefs -- and in voicing beliefs about themselves and the world around them that might have been stifled or disregarded back home, students might find sympathetic audiences and allies in college. So too they might find themselves treated like adults, with worthy opinions and points of view that are outside the mainstream. And they may call out certain kinds of injustices of which they were not fully aware of before coming to college. They are encouraged to speak their minds in ways they are not used to, by their friends but also by the university itself. And here is where things get tricky, and may become vocal, edgy, impassioned, uncontrolled.

The university, for all its claims toward liberal education, is still committed to a "safe" environment. There is nothing wrong with that. What is difficult is adjudicating the "proper" balance between dissent and forced consent. What irks people who are vehemently opposed to the general sensibility that informs much of what we see and hear about trigger warnings and micro-aggressions is that the assumed balance of power has been compromised.

So what should we do? I suggest that we try to undo some of the damage done to students as they were being "prepared" for college. That means that we need to, as Lukianoff and Haidt suggest, be Socratic in our method. In order to do that we need to remind students what a student's responsibility is, and that is not to back off from ideas that might be well outside their "comfort zone." But, critically, and this is the part the authors conspicuously leave out, that also means we need to remind ourselves as teachers of the same -- we have to actually confront and accept the responsibility of teaching in a broad, non-instrumental manner, to listening to challenges to our statements and pronouncements and treating them with respect and seriousness. We have to stop coddling ourselves, and hiding behind our academic titles.

When it comes to trigger warnings (the issue of micro-aggressions merits a separate discussion). I frankly have always used something like that, but I have never called what I did in the classroom such. When I know the material I am asking the students to read contains something that is potentially disturbing, for any reason, when the assignment is being made I say that in discussion we will want to try to account for it -- why and how is this portion of the text disturbing, why is it meant to be, what might the text be trying to get us to think about, and in what manners? How is this assignment not arbitrary, but necessary and reasonable? Why will it be "on the test"?

Simply focusing on "the subject matter" is again part and parcel of the standardized thinking that only asks for students to know the data point and feed it back at the proper moment in the test. Similarly, outlawing or censoring materials simply because of the topic strips the material of its actual value to us. "Subjects" are simply rubrics that hide the complexity that is at the heart of the things we teach. And that complexity can hurt, harm, disturb. But rather than deny or evade that fact, or explain it away, it should be part of our duty as teachers, and learners, to wrestle with discomfort, respect the uneven and varied effects this has, and learn to learn better. The judgment of the courts that artistic works should not be censored so long as they have "redeeming social value" has some merit -- but only of we do not assume that determining social value is as easy as it sounds. It is our job and our responsibility to help students to figure that out. In that the authors of the "The Coddling of the American Mind" and I agree. Again, where we disagree is the limit those authors place on tolerating disturbing ideas that emanate from places they refuse to acknowledge as legitimate.

Rather than worry about coddling students (or assuming that they are coddled in the ways they are thought to be), I would suggest we unburden them from the stultifying habits of non-thought in which they have been indoctrinated. And I suggest as well that we as teachers toughen up a bit and be prepared to be challenged, called out, and questioned. We are perfectly well capable of being sexist, racist, homophobic, and more.

We should not take these accusations personally but see them within the context of our profession and our actual power to sit in judgment of our students. They are simply not taking our authority and grade-assigning power as a reason not to criticize how we are conceiving of and conveying knowledge. We in fact should be glad they are paying attention, and if I am really saying something sexist, for example, I would like to know it, and consider it a favor to be called on it. Not only for my betterment, but for my own education and the chance to extend that new understanding on how sexism works to the class and future classes. And if we are worried about having the class discussion being drawn off course too much, we should invite anyone interested to continue the discussion at another time.

Positing the blame solely on a vocal, but still small group of individuals who voice these concerns, calling this a "movement" in order to fan the flames of reaction, and slapping them with a dismissive label only makes matters worse. Besides, doing so betrays one's own sense of vulnerability and attachment to authority.