The Problem With Helicopter Colleges

The Harvard professor Steven Pinker objects to a proposal to ban various undergraduate social clubs, citing a model of higher education that many elite institutions are rejecting.

Jessica Rinaldi / Reuters

As a coda to yesterday’s article on Harvard University, where a committee is trying to ban undergraduates from joining social clubs, readers may be interested in a dissent offered by Steven Pinker, the influential psychology professor, who declared that the recommendation of his colleagues is “at odds with the ideals of a university.”

If you’re catching up, the Harvard committee argued that “allowing our students pick their own social spaces and friends,” while not without value, is at odds with principles of “inclusiveness and equality,” and should be sacrificed in the name of progress.

Pinker’s response:

This is a terrible recommendation, which is at odds with the ideals of a university.

  1. A university is an institution with circumscribed responsibilities which engages in a contract with its students. Its main responsibility is to provide them with an education. It is not an arbiter over their lives, 24/7. What they do on their own time is none of the university’s business.
  1. One of the essential values in higher education is that people can differ in their values, and that these differences can be constructively discussed. Harvard has a right to value mixed-sex venues everywhere, all the time, with no exceptions. If some of its students find value in private, single-sex associations, some of the time, a university is free to argue against, discourage, or even ridicule those choices. But it is not a part of the mandate of a university to impose these values on its students over their objections.
  1. Universities ought to be places where issues are analyzed, distinctions are made, evidence is evaluated, and policies crafted to attain clearly stated goals. This recommendation is a sledgehammer which doesn’t distinguish between single-sex and other private clubs. It doesn’t target illegal or objectionable behavior such as drunkenness or public disturbances. Nor by any stretch of the imagination could it be seen as an effective, rationally justified, evidence-based policy tailored to reduce sexual assault.
  1. This illiberal policy can only contribute to the impression in the country at large that elite universities are not dispassionate forums for clarifying values, analyzing problems, and proposing evidence-based solutions, but are institutions determined to impose their ideology and values on a diverse population by brute force.

Were I running a university, I would happily conform to the principles set forth by Pinker, a course that would best serve students of all sorts in my estimation.

But Harvard University and most other elite institutions of undergraduate education long ago rejected the proposition that “a university is an institution with circumscribed responsibilities which engages in a contract with its students. Its main responsibility is to provide them with an education. It is not an arbiter over their lives, 24/7. What they do on their own time is none of the university’s business.”

As prospective students who peruse Harvard’s residential life web page learn in the first sentence they read, “From the moment our Freshmen walk into Harvard Yard until they graduate they are surrounded by people dedicated to making Harvard ‘home.’” That is partly because Harvard buys into the core premise of the residential college model: that students spend more time outside the classroom than inside of the classroom, and living in an ordered community will help them learn from faculty and one another even as they take meals, attend events, and socialize.

But the particulars of residential life at elite institutions are also shaped by other imperatives: catering to the desires of consumerist parents and students; adhering to increasingly intrusive regulations from the federal government; protecting the safety of young people who are no longer considered adults; and conforming to a normative judgment that colleges should be home, or at least “home.”

Alan Jacobs, a professor at Baylor University, has written eloquently about that last piece. A residential college is not a home, he observed, but  “a place where people from all over the world, from a wide range of social backgrounds, and with a wide range of interests and abilities, come to live together temporarily, for about 30 weeks a year, before moving on to their careers. It is an essentially public space, though with controls on ingress and egress to prevent chaos and foster friendship and fellowship.”

The significance of the distinction, described in the wake of a controversy at Yale University:

Residential colleges have long been defended as transitional spaces between the world of home and a fully independent adult life, and it would be a great mistake to think of them as merely continuing the ethos of home.

That would leave young people totally unprepared for that “adult life,” which I think we might, for the purposes of this discussion, define as that period during which there is no one to run to to demand control over other people’s Halloween costumes … by the time one gets to college one’s “public individuality” should be sufficiently developed that the wearing of costumes should be seen as an essentially trivial matter that students can deal with among themselves. If they can’t, the university needs to acknowledge that they’re dealing with some serious cases of arrested development.

In a fascinating article called “The Japanese Preschool’s Pedagogy of Peripheral Participation,” Akiko Hayashi and Joseph Tobin describe a twofold strategy commonly deployed in Japan to deal with preschoolers’ conflicts: machi no hoiku and mimamoru. The former means “caring by waiting”; the second means “standing guard.” When children come into conflict, the teacher makes sure the students know that she is present—she may even add, kamisama datte miterun, daiyo (the gods too are watching)—but she does not intervene unless absolutely necessary. Even if the children start to fight she may not intervene; that will depend on whether a child is genuinely attempting to hurt another or the two are halfheartedly “play-fighting.”

The idea is to give children every possible opportunity to resolve their own conflicts—even past the point at which it might, to an American observer, seem that a conflict is irresolvable. This requires patient waiting; and of course one can wait too long—just as one can intervene too quickly. The mimamoru strategy is meant to reassure children that their authorities will not allow anything really bad to happen to them, though perhaps some unpleasant moments may arise. But those unpleasant moments must be tolerated, else how will the children learn to respond constructively and effectively to conflict—conflict which is, after all, inevitable in any social environment? And if children don’t begin to learn such responses in preschool when will they learn it?Imagine if at university they had developed no such abilities and were constantly dependent on authorities to ease every instance of social friction.

What a mess that would be.

The child-development expert Erika Christakis made much the same point in her thoughtful if much maligned email at Yale, where she urged administrators to stop attempting to shape campus norms around Halloween costumes for the sake of students:

I don’t wish to trivialize genuine concerns about cultural and personal representation, and other challenges to our lived experience in a plural community. I know that many decent people have proposed guidelines on Halloween costumes from a spirit of avoiding hurt and offense. I laud those goals, in theory … But in practice, I wonder if we should reflect more transparently, as a community, on the consequences of an institutional (which is to say: bureaucratic and administrative) exercise of implied control over college students … we can have this discussion of costumes on many levels: we can talk about complex issues of identify, free speech, cultural appropriation, and virtue “signalling.” But I wanted to share my thoughts with you from a totally different angle, as an educator concerned with the developmental stages of childhood and young adulthood.

… Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious … a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive? American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition. And the censure and prohibition come from above, not from yourselves!

Are we all okay with this transfer of power?

Have we lost faith in young people’s capacity—in your capacity—to exercise self-censure, through social norming, and also in your capacity to ignore or reject things that trouble you? We tend to view this shift from individual to institutional agency as a tradeoff between libertarian vs. liberal values (“liberal” in the American, not European sense of the word) …  But—again, speaking as a child development specialist—I think there might be something missing in our discourse about the exercise of free speech on campus, and it is this: What does this debate about Halloween costumes say about our view of young adults, of their strength and judgment?

Jacobs, Christakis, and Pinker are inclined to treat college students like people who are either already capable of exercising autonomous judgments about their social lives, in a manner closer to adults than to children, or who had better be empowered to do so right away, in the relatively safe environment of undergraduate campuses, because they will need that skill in the real world.

But elite institutions of higher education—and many students who attend them, though not necessarily a majority—want to proceed with a very different model of residential life.

They reject the premise that what students do on their own time is their own business, because they might do things that upset, offend, or exclude others; they believe that administrators of residential life can enlighten students morally by way of imposing bureaucratic rules and structures, resulting in more inclusive, equal campuses. Perfecting campus life, or getting as close as possible, is a bigger focus than exposing students to the autonomy that they’ll be forced to navigate after graduation.

In sketching these visions, I do not want to imply that they present a binary choice, with radically polarized camps utterly refusing to draw on the best insights of the other approach. Christakis explicitly nodded to the good intentions of the bureaucrats, and the way she and her husband adjudicated their positions as “masters” of Silliman College illustrate their moderate view of college as an in-between space. And even the most heavy-handed progressive college administrator will pay lip service to the notion that college students benefit from exercises in autonomy like studying abroad in unfamiliar countries.

On the whole, however, I see a landscape of higher education where classical liberal values like free speech and due process have powerful defenders against the excesses of utopian progressives, but where there are no organized advocates of the proposition that institutions should largely butt-out of the lives of undergraduates, so that they may develop and assert different values and learn to deal with the consequences.

Expect excesses in the other direction until that changes.