Reporter's Notebook

Debating the New Campus PC
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Readers tackle the Atlantic cover story “The Coddling of the American Mind” by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, who then respond to their critics at length. (Here’s a subsequent debate in Notes over the numerous campus protests sparked by students at Yale and Mizzou.)

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How Widespread Are Trigger Warnings Really?

The great back-and-forth between Lukianoff/Haidt and their critics of “The Coddling of the American Mind” continues. From reader Alan:

That “trigger warning” article was pretty weak on examples. A lot of profs have been forced to explain themselves to pushy students and admins, but is there a single example of a brave prof who actually stood up for their curriculum only to be shut down by the PC brigade? Grow a spine, guys. This isn’t actually a problem.

Another reader piles on:

As a faculty member at a community college in Washington state, I can attest to having experienced and being frustrated with helicopter parents and over-entitled kids, but my God, there is no such thing as college policy that dictates we have to issue trigger warnings. Instructors complain about whiny students, but we wouldn’t survive if we didn’t have thick skins and weren’t able to handle student complaints one way or another. We are in the business of teaching and learning—we know we have to pay attention to how students are absorbing/applying the lessons we prepare.

How many colleges actually have trigger warning policies? Can the authors of this article provide empirical evidence that this coddling they describe is a widespread issue? I sincerely hope and encourage you to follow this article up with more careful journalism.

A follow-up from Lukianoff:

As I said in a previous response, I think people are being unfair to professors when they think that professors are just concerned about “whiny students.” Student complaints can come with real consequences for someone’s livelihood, and unfortunately, administrators are too quick to investigate or punish professors for the claim that they offended students.

I mentioned a few examples earlier. But here’s another example that shows just how easy it is for professors to get in trouble because of student complaints.

The debate over Haidt and Lukianoff’s cover story rages on. From Atlantic reader Elizabeth O'Leary:

Trigger warnings protect people who are CURRENTLY experiencing things like abuse or suicidality. They are similar to the movie rating system, which gives you an idea of what to expect (rather like knowing that there is an elevator in the lobby, to use the desensitizing example from the article). The use of trigger warnings indicate that you will not be punished for not participating in discussion/class. Their use may be more appropriate in classes that are required by all students. Their use may be more appropriate as part of the syllabus or course description.

I have a lot of thoughts about the points the article brings up, but the tone of the article annoys me.  It was not written as a thoughtful piece but as a provocative one intended to be aggressive towards the sensibilities of many current college students.  There are a lot of great ideas in the piece, such as how does protecting one person from harm change the experience of the entire group, but the point was not developed the way it needed to be.

Haidt responds:

(The Atlantic)

I think the comparison to film ratings is revealing. Why do we rate films at all? Because children watch movies, and we want parents to have good information in deciding what is appropriate for their children. This protective attitude must end at some point in life; Greg and I believe that it should end by age 18.

We believe that in the long run, trigger warnings are harmful for people who have suffered trauma, and we explain why in the article. But what I’d like to expand upon here is the harm they do to everyone else.

I teach in New York City. Suppose that part of my teaching was to take students on field trips all around the city. Suppose further that every time we went to The Bronx, we took along a police escort and an ambulance. Just in case. And suppose that I told students that they didn’t have to go to the Bronx, if it would make them feel unsafe. What would students learn? They’d come to fear The Bronx, and the people who live there.

When we tag ideas and authors as dangerous to read, we are teaching students to fear ideas and authors. This is antithetical to the purpose of a university, and to the kind of fearless thinking that most universities say they want to instill.

Reader V. Reish raises a hand:

Would someone like to hear from an actual mentally-ill recent college grad who has been in cognitive behavioral therapy for years? Ok, then let me just state this as unambiguously as possible:

A college educator, Kristin Poling, joins the chorus of critics:

(via Robert Gehl)

Although the culture of “vindictive protectiveness” that Lukianoff and Haidt describe is troubling, their article shows little awareness of what happens in the college classroom. I teach an introductory course on modern world history in which my students must confront violence and injustice based on race, sex, class, and religion. These discussions are at the heart of what it means to receive a liberal arts education. They are not discussions for which we have the space, time, or trust in the course of most ordinary life. Therefore, it is both appropriate and pedagogically useful for the classroom to be treated as a privileged space, where special protections enable intense and challenging dialogues to occur.

Warning students about disturbing topics, setting ground rules for discussion, and spotlighting how microaggressions work are ways to protect the classroom as a privileged space for encountering challenging and often disturbing ideas. While I have never used the term “trigger warning,” I make a practice of alerting students to disturbing material and remind them to be respectful of the reactions and views of others.

Acknowledging that students will react emotionally to material helps them to move beyond emotional reasoning to think more critically. Being reminded of their peers’ reactions also encourages students to express themselves more clearly and confidently by making them aware of potential pitfalls that could have made them unwilling to speak. Just as clear street markings and warning signs allow us to drive more safely at higher speeds, we are able to take greater intellectual risks when potential hazards are highlighted and ground rules for discussion are established.

This approach, in my teaching experience, often makes students more willing to reconsider their own assumptions, to struggle with viewpoints other than their own, and to learn something new. This is not to coddle students’ minds, but to enable the opening of minds.

That’s the strongest argument I’ve seen from a reader so far, even though I’m generally in favor of Haidt and Lukianoff’s view. Haidt responds to his reader:

I have been teaching seminar classes in psychology for 24 years. Greg teaches law students. We understand the crucial role the professor plays in setting norms and expectations. I like Prof. Poling’s metaphor of road signs.

Atlantic reader Bert Clere remembers one of the edgiest comedians of the early aughts:

When reading “The Coddling of the American Mind” and “That’s Not Funny!,” I kept thinking back to Borat and my experience at a small liberal arts college in NC, beginning in 2004.  Like many undergrads at the time, my friends and I used to watch Borat segments from The Ali G Show and quote them regularly.  When the Borat movie came out in 2006 it was an event; the only comedy film in my lifetime that had a genuine blockbuster aura.  Almost everyone I knew went to see it.  

We told ourselves, as did most of the media, that the appeal of Borat was the way in which he “showed up” the rotten underbelly of Bush’s Red State America.  But looking back, I think this misrepresented some of Borat’s core appeal.  

Greg Lukianoff sat down with our editor-in-chief to discuss the response he got from readers on the cover story he wrote with Jonathan Haidt:

Many references to your emails are strewn throughout. For example, at about the two-minute mark, Greg gets a tad emotional recalling the email we posted from Paula, who read a poem in class about a suicide from a tall building—the same method her sister used to kill herself. At about the 3-minute mark, Greg makes a point similar to one I remember last year from Jill Filipovic, a long-time editor of the left-liberal blog Feministe:

The world can be a desperately ugly place, especially for women. That feminist blogs try to carve out a little section of the world that is a teeny bit safer for their readers is a credit to many of those spaces.

Colleges, though, are not intellectual or emotional safe zones. Nor should they be. Trauma survivors need tools to manage their triggers and cope with every day life. Universities absolutely should prioritize their needs – by making sure that mental health care is adequately funded, widely available and destigmatized. But they do students no favors by pretending that every piece of potentially upsetting, triggering or even emotionally devastating content comes with a warning sign.

Amen. But back to our reader discussion with another dissenter, Zak Bickel, who runs through some previous critiques from readers:

Here’s some of my thoughts on the argument’s progression, and particularly on the most recent responses by Haidt.

Our reader Becky Liddle, the Toronto psychologist we quoted previously, also made this excellent point in her email:

Haidt and Lukianoff mention the rise in percentage of students on campus with mental health problems, but they do not mention that much of that rise is not necessarily from an increase in society but rather is largely due to the fact that the Americans with Disabilities Act and other protections for students with disabilities has allowed more students with mental health issues to stay and succeed in college.

For example, professors are now required to make allowances (reasonable accommodations) for a student with Bipolar II Disorder who could not complete an assignment on time due to a depressive episode. In prior generations, that bipolar student likely would have flunked out. Nowadays he or she gets accommodation and remains on campus, boosting the percentage of students with mental health problems, but also boosting the chances of a good and productive life.

This rise is actually a good thing: It means we are educating, instead of discarding, students with mental health challenges

Another reader talks about her own personal trauma and her ability to overcome it with the help of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), the method championed by Haidt and Lukianoff:

I’ve read the original article (and discussed it at length with all my close friends) and I’ve read all of the Notes. The one titled “Trigger Warning: Another Post About Trigger Warnings” hit home. I am a 62-year-old survivor of domestic violence by my spouse.

(Kristian Hammerstad / The Atlantic)

You might be getting tired of this long, rich discussion by now, but reader emails keep pouring in. Below is a final big roundup of email—which has been, on the whole, supportive of the story from Haidt and Lukianoff:

When citizens in a democratic republic like ours are more concerned about whether their speech will cause offense than they are about expressing ideas, they become incapable of fulfilling their obligations as citizens.  They refuse to hear, much less repeat and promote, important ideas for fear that a listener may take offense. Yet, it is precisely these types of ideas—ideas that are outrageous and upsetting when first expressed—that help to keep the Republic alive and free through continuous change.

Let’s be clear. The goal of speech code has nothing to do with feelings.  The goal is power—power to silence dissent and to force conformity and compliance.

Another reader is at his wit’s end:

I am in a graduate program of social work at a fairly “prestigious” university and this PC stuff is killing our education.

In our cover story last summer on the strengthening PC movements on college campuses, Haidt and Lukianoff noted an attempt by one student group to bureaucratize and punish certain kinds of speech:

In March [2015], the student government at Ithaca College, in upstate New York, went so far as to propose the creation of an anonymous microaggression-reporting system. Student sponsors envisioned some form of disciplinary action against “oppressors” engaged in belittling speech.

A post on Monday from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) reported that a microaggression-reporting system is actually now in place—at the University of Northern Colorado (UNC), which calls it a “Bias Response” system. Then things got really meta for us at The Atlantic:

According to UNC documents obtained by Heat Street under Colorado’s Open Records Act, a professor asked his students to read The Atlantic’s “The Coddling of the American Mind” (co-authored by FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff).

Case Western Reserve

Earlier this week I noted a small dispatch from the campus PC wars that is very close to home: The Atlantic’s “Coddling of the American Mind” essay became part of the story itself when a professor at the University of Northern Colorado (UNC) was investigated by his school’s Bias Report Team after using the essay to discuss the treatment of opposing viewpoints in the classroom. (I since discovered another meta anecdote: The Washington Post last month ran a photo-laden feature on “The New Language of Protest,” and the six terms addressed were: cultural appropriation, microaggression, safe space, trigger warning, starting the conversation, and … “responding to the charge that they are coddled.”)

Many readers have responded to the UNC incident by highlighting similar Bias Reporting Systems at their own colleges. Here’s Steve:

I’m an undergrad studying physics and astronomy at Case Western Reserve University, and at my glorious institution we have our own “Bias Reporting System.” I have not heard much about its use, meaning that either it is seldom evoked or that the administration wily tries to keep incidents quiet.

But I almost had a brush with it when I published a letter to the editor of our student newspaper responding to an opinion piece entitled “Please Stop Talking.” I got on the bad sides of a few social activists by publishing my response.