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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The Rise of Microaggression Reporting Systems

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).

(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.

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.

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.

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.  

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.

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:

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.

Atlantic reader Adam Needelman agrees with the sentiment of the previous reader who called Lukianoff and Haidt “grumpy old men”; he calls their essay “a lazy rehash of the same cyclical generation bashing we get every ten years.” He also sees a double standard:

The section of the essay hyperventilating about trigger warnings complains of a “chilling effect” on “teaching and pedagogy.” It fails to mention that chilling effects are incumbent on the cowardice of those being chilled. Why is it that when professors so fear criticism that they choose to compromise on their principles and job performances, it’s not discussed as being too thin-skinned, but when students fear offense, it is?

Furthermore, why is it when Jerry Seinfeld essentially says “I am a grown man and professional comedian, but I will not perform at colleges because I am worried the kids may be mean to me,” we call the kids thin-skinned, but not the man deathly afraid of criticism? Could it be because we have emotional attachment to the idea of younger people being more thin-skinned?

Haidt responds first:

Mr. Needelman asserts that what the faculty fears is being criticized. It is not. It is being brought up on charges before the university’s Equal Opportunity Commission, or some other internal body that is charged with investigating all student complaints.

Under the 2013 Department of Education revised guidelines that we describe in the article, any student who deems what a professor says to be “unwelcome” can file harassment charges. These charges must be adjudicated by some body created by the university. This adjudication forces the professor to spend dozens of hours to write defenses, sit through testimony, and respond to official emails. It is a nightmare and a time drain dropped into a busy semester.

See what happened to Laura Kipnis. This happened to me too, in a more abbreviated form. I am now gun-shy; I am afraid of offending the most sensitive student that I can imagine, and so I am now a more cautious, less spontaneous, and less interesting teacher.

Lukianoff responds at even greater length:

Being concerned about some negative trends resulting from decisions made by educators and parents over the past couple decades doesn’t sound like to me like “generation bashing,” as the reader put it. Jon and I are concerned that society is telling students that they are far more fragile than they actually are, and we believe that is not only harming their mental health, but also selling them short.

As for our “hyperventilating about trigger warnings,” our argument is that trigger warnings do not necessarily help the people they claim to help, people who suffer from PTSD, and might put professors in a position where they have to fear for their jobs if they cannot live up to the impossible task of predicting everything a student might claim is offensive and warrants a trigger warning.

He goes on to cite many examples of professors facing much more than just hurt feelings:

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, authors of the current Atlantic cover story “The Coddling of the American Mind,” were eager to respond to a half-dozen of the most forceful criticisms from their readers selected from the hello@ account. Here’s Sebastian:

As a member of the class of 2014 at an American university, I knew I was in for a treat from the first line of the essay: “Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities.” I immediately thought of the grumpy old man, sitting on his front porch, lecturing at anyone who will listen about “kids these days” and “the problem with young people.”

Sure enough, in the second section we get: “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.” This is a terrific new twist on an old classic: “In my day, we walked to school through the snow and the rain, uphill both ways!”

Lukianoff responds to his young reader:

We’ve seen a number of variations of this criticism: questioning why we should listen to “grumpy old men.” (By the way, I’m 40. I know that’s old to some of you, but maybe not so much to others).

While I’m hesitant to call this critique an argument, as it doesn’t substantively address what we talk about or propose in the article, I do understand where it is coming from. We can all recall eye-rolling moments when we saw older folks lecturing the younger generation about how hard it was in “their day,” and it may often be a good idea to take these nostalgic remarks with a grain of salt. Our memories can be tricky things, and psychology shows that we’re not all that good at remembering how good or bad things were in the past and are prone to revising and overgeneralizing.

But is my reader saying that generational critiques are presumptively meritless? To treat an older person’s critiques or advice as merely deluded nostalgia is essentially to say that people from older generations have no wisdom to offer younger generations. As people who take seriously even the advice of ancient thinkers, we simply don’t believe that’s true.

But I want to go one step further: it’s easy to roll your eyes at someone who says “it was harder in my day,” but does that mean he or she is wrong?

My father was born in 1926 in Yugoslavia and his father died when he was six years old. He lived through the terror of the Nazi occupation and World War II.

A reader from Maine suggests so:

I am not an economic determinist; I don’t believe that all social phenomena can be attributed to economic causes. However, the fact that Lukianoff and Haidt don’t once talk about the consumerist revolution in American higher education is astounding. That is, undoubtedly, the #1 reason for the rise in “vindictive protectiveness.”

When money becomes the one and only value within institutions of higher ed, then the people who pay that money—or the people who act as the proxy for that money—will have the final say on what they feel is appropriate to encounter in class. This means edutainment, lessons built around emotional management—not rational or critical discussion about the messy reality of the world. Administrators would sooner censure an “offensive” teacher than lose one tiny part of their budget.

Add to this the reality of a job market that simply cannot absorb new college grads, and a massive debt bubble, and you have the right pieces for the construction of an escapist pleasure dome—a place for students to avoid the impending doom they feel about a vicious world.

Your thoughts? Email Haidt and Lukianoff have penned responses to a half-dozen of your most critical emails and we'll be posting them starting Monday morning.

Atlantic reader Paula has a similar stance on trigger warnings as the college instructor who was raped:

I was in a literature class when my professor read a poem that was in the perspective of someone jumping off a skyscraper. This was the method my sister used to end her life.

For whatever reason, I couldn’t handle it that day and started seeing things. I left the room to get a cup of coffee and calm down. At the end of class, I went back to ask what the homework was, only to find my professor apologizing profusely for selecting that poem despite knowing what happened to my sister. He said he should’ve at least given me a warning.

I was taken aback. I told him that I chose to take a literature class, and he selected a poem that would teach the lesson best to the whole class. I couldn’t handle it, so that was my own responsibility.

Honestly, since all my professors knew I had mental issues, it was quite refreshing just for once to not be singled out, to be treated like a normal person. I seriously don’t understand why people want trigger warnings.

Another reader agrees:

As a dark-skinned Latino gay male, I am deeply alarmed that this new wave of stifling political correctness has swept college campuses. Such efforts and policies are ostensibly used to “protect” students like me from “offense.” But these people do not realize that they’re doing the very thing they accuse the “victimizers” and “oppressors” of doing—condescending to people like me.

This new political correctness simply crystallizes the ugly paternalism the left sometimes inflicts on minorities.