The Conversation

Readers respond to The Atlantic’s October issue.

Better Watch What You Say

In their September cover story, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt argued that issuing “trigger warnings” in college courses impedes education and emotionally weakens undergraduates.

Whatever their marketing says, universities certainly treat students today like paying customers—and they have convinced us, over time, to pay more and get less. Is it any wonder, then, that students feel entitled to some institutional consideration of their feelings, however misguided those feelings may be?
Blair Reeves
Chapel Hill, N.C.

How did colleges manage to guide generations of students through offense and outrage, only to founder at the dawn of the 21st century? Haidt and Lukianoff offer some plausible candidates …
But here’s a candidate Haidt and Lukianoff don’t mention: the steady shift toward viewing college as a consumer experience, rather than an institution that is there to shape you toward its own ideal … Cultural and economic shifts have pushed students toward behaving more like consumers in a straight commercial transaction, and less like people who were being inducted into a non-market institution.
Mass education, and the rise of colleges as labor-market gatekeepers, have transformed colleges from a place to be imbued with the intangible qualities of character and education … into a place where you go to buy a ticket to a good job. I strongly suspect that the increasing importance of student loans also plays a role, because control over the tuition checks has shifted from parents to students …
So perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised to find that students are demanding to be kept sheltered from ideas they don’t like—or that universities have begun to acquiesce to these demands. But if it is not surprising, it is worrying. A university education is supposed to accomplish two things: expose you to a wide variety of ideas and help you navigate through them; and turn you into an adult, which is to say, someone who can cope with people, and ideas, they don’t like.
Megan McArdle
Excerpt from a Bloomberg View article

The authors make some important points about how protecting students from offense might shortchange their education—but they ignore one central cause of the trigger-warning trend: the erosion of tenure and academic freedom on American campuses.
In 1975, nearly 30 percent of faculty were tenured and more than 15 percent were tenure-track, afforded at least some academic-freedom protections. As of 2011, less than one-fifth of faculty fall into either category. This means the majority of classrooms are staffed by instructors who have to worry that one offended student might be the difference between next semester’s course load and job loss. If we want to ensure that classrooms remain places of vital (and, indeed, sometimes uncomfortable) intellectual exchange, the first thing we must do is recommit to the protection of academic freedom for faculty so they need not fear that challenging their students to think and learn will threaten their job.
Mikaila Mariel Lemonik Arthur
Associate Professor of Sociology, Rhode Island College Providence, R.I.

Evolving thinking on the human microbiome has led to the belief that one of the causes of today’s increasing allergies and weakened immune systems is overprotected kids raised in an antibiotic-wiped, germ-free, dirt-free world.
And consider the story of the Buddha, a prince raised in a kingdom where his father made sure he never saw anything upsetting or painful. It wasn’t until he escaped the confines of the castle and saw the world as it truly was that he found enlightenment.
We should welcome idealism and good intentions, but also pay attention to the results. By limiting our exposure to germs, ideas, and perspectives we are also limiting our resilience, tolerance, and understanding.
John Arndt
San Anselmo, Calif.

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s article reads as nothing more than an ageist castigation of uppity youngsters and their false consciousness. These articles have proliferated in the past year or so, and I have reached a point of critical ennui with the 40-plus contingent worrying about what will happen to their “free speech” in the university. As a current graduate student who is often placed between professors and their students, I see firsthand the generational divide. However, to frame this solely in terms of generational difference is disingenuous, because that ignores how much the student population has diversified. The only thing that has changed in higher education over several decades is that Millennials are really sensitive? Come on! More students of color are attending college than ever before.
What irks me most about Lukianoff and Haidt’s reasoning is the idea that these young people are delusional and in need of help. Yes, some of the examples the authors give are extreme. Yet these obscure how trigger warnings tend to operate in the classroom. When I give a brief content warning (I don’t call it a “trigger” warning) in class before teaching Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, I am acknowledging that there are real people in front of me, not ciphers for my superior moral logic and reasoning.
And, of all absurdities, Lukianoff and Haidt end their article with a quotation from Thomas Jefferson on the “freedom of the human mind”—Jefferson, a landed elite who freed some of his most coveted slaves only upon his death. In Jefferson’s world, there was only one “human mind,” and it was white, male, and wealthy. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t read his writings, but it does perhaps suggest that we should at least admit what kind of man he was and discuss it with our students.
Leah Fry
Santa Barbara, Calif.

The authors display little or no interest in encouraging nuanced thought about the movement to bring greater consciousness to the ways that forms of oppression are unconsciously embedded in language—what I call humanistic awareness, not political correctness.
I found Lukianoff and Haidt’s approach to requests for some advance notice to help trauma victims prepare for potentially triggering exposure similarly one-sided. I presume they also decry news broadcasts warning that difficult material is forthcoming. The article presents a reductionist argument, boiling the issue down to “bad thinking,” oversensitivity, and “coddling” of trauma victims. It reads like a panicked pandering knell, full of the catastrophizing of which the authors accuse college students (for example, the claim that faculty members “increasingly fear what students might do to their reputations and careers by stirring up online mobs against them”).
Deep into the article, I, a clinical psychologist, encounter Pavlov, for the first time a trauma expert, and the glossing-over of the fact that exposure therapy does not work for many people with anxiety and trauma. Nor do the authors offer any awareness of how their intellectual discourse has been shaped by their own sociopolitical locations, as their reference to Thomas Jefferson well attests. When Jefferson spoke about the “illimitable freedom of the human mind,” he surely didn’t mean those he and others enslaved.
But no matter. I guess we’d all do well to go back to the good old days when boys would be boys, sticks and stones could break my bones but words could never hurt me, and we, the marginalized, did all the accommodating.
Thandiwe Dee Watts-Jones, Ph.D.
New Rochelle, N.Y.

Lukianoff and Haidt make an extraordinary claim: that trigger warnings are causing American college students to exhibit psychopathologies. As a social-science graduate student who teaches college students, I find this hard to believe.
Before claiming that students are “more desirous of protection and more hostile toward ideological opponents than in generations past,” Lukianoff and Haidt should have used surveys, experiments, and other tools of social science to measure students’ attitudes today, then compared them with similar surveys of college students in generations past. Instead of providing evidence from surveys of college students, the authors mention studies of the voting public (a very different population) and provide a number of anecdotes about tense interactions on different campuses. They make no attempt to show why these campuses should be treated as representative of college campuses as a whole.
Lukianoff and Haidt wisely note that cognitive behavioral therapy has much to offer new college students. Perhaps the authors would benefit from their own advice against “catastrophizing” as they argue that trigger warnings are “bad for American democracy.”
Seth Soderborg
Somerville, Mass.

How the Bankers Stayed Out of Jail

In September, William D. Cohan explained why the leaders of the financial institutions responsible for the 2008 crash won’t be brought to justice.
Matt Chase
The leaders of the credit-rating houses—Standard & Poor’s, Fitch, and Moody’s—are the real criminals who caused much of the devastation of the 2008 financial crisis. Their profligate, dishonest, and fraudulent behavior is unmentioned by Cohan, probably because no police entity went after them. Their granting of AAA status to bundled junk mortgages deserves much of the blame for the debacle.
The credit-rating agencies’ deceit enabled Wall Street salesmen to do what Wall Street salesmen do: sell securities. If the three of them had rated the bundled mortgages as CCC, or even B, or even BB, they would have been unsalable. AAA was what Wall Street needed, and the credit-rating agencies gave it to them—for a fee. How did they escape?
Donald Allen
Evanston, Ill.

I’ve thought for a long time that it is useless to levy fines against corporations for wrongdoing. As Mr. Cohan points out, the money comes out of the pockets of consumers and shareholders and is taken as an “expense” by the corporation, thereby reducing taxes paid. I suggest that a special branch of criminal law be created to try corporations (who allegedly have the rights of citizens and therefore should be held to the same standard of accountability, in terms of criminal activity). If a financial institution deals in what it knows to be worthless derivatives, it should be prohibited from creating or selling financial instruments for a specified period of time. The same proceedings should be able to assign responsibility to individuals acting on behalf of corporations, with appropriate individual accountability—prison sentences, psychiatric rehabilitation, community service.
Brian M. Roth
Fremont, Calif.

William D. Cohan replies:

Donald Allen is certainly correct that the credit-rating agencies exacerbated the wrongdoing that Wall Street bankers, traders, and executives perpetrated on investors the world over, and that these agencies were giving the Wall Street underwriters of shoddy securities exactly what they wanted. The rating agencies were bought and paid for by Wall Street, which thought nothing of playing one agency off another until it got AAA ratings for securities that were anything but safe.
In February, Standard & Poor’s, the leading rating agency and a division of McGraw Hill Financial, paid a $1.5 billion fine to settle fraud charges brought against the company by federal and state officials. As with the big Wall Street banks’ settlements, S&P’s settlement allowed the company to obfuscate exactly what it did wrong.
One day, we will look back on this collective wrongdoing and wonder how we could have allowed our prosecutors to sweep the whole thing under the rug.

The Migrant Crisis

In the July/August issue, David Frum discussed ways to stop the flow of illegal migrants across the Mediterranean (“Closing Europe’s Harbors”).
Frum cites the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi as the starting point of the migrant flow but forgets to mention that his demise was engineered by the U.S. and its allies. This “regime change” has not just brought chaos to Libya; it has allowed the arming and expansion of Boko Haram, which has killed thousands in Africa and driven many more from their homes.
Then there are all the other military adventures of the U.S. and its allies: arming one group and then another, killing with drone strikes and drug wars, and on and on, creating millions of refugees.
Here’s a suggestion for Europeans, and others. If you want to discourage migrants from flooding into your countries, you could start by not destroying their countries.
Brigid Mullane
Sydney, Australia

The Big Question: What was the most consequential sibling rivalry of all time?

(On, readers answered September’s Big Question and voted on one another’s responses. Here are the top vote-getters.)

​5. Genghis Khan killed his older half brother. After the murder, he took as ruler of hist tribe. Eliminating his sibling likely enabled him to become the leader of the Mongol Empire.

— Lawrence Batler

4. Romulus and Remus, the mythological twins whose rivalry initiated the rise of the Roman Empire.

— John Salamack

3. The first fratricide, Cain’s murder of Abel.

— Phillip Certain

2. Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth. If Mary had lived, and suppressed her sister, the Catholic Church would have been restored in England and history would have been very different.

— Andrew Gombos

1. Two sons were born to Abraham: Ishmael and Isaac. Their rivalry originated thousands of years’ worth of deadly competition between nations and faiths in the Middle East and across the globe.

— Emrys Tyler

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