Trigger Warnings, Safe Spaces, and Callout Culture: What’s Happening on College Campuses, and Can It Be Changed?

“This is a book about education and wisdom. If we can educate the next generation more wisely, they will be stronger, richer, more virtuous, and even safer.”

This is the optimistic goal and tconclusion of The Coddling of the America Mind by Greg Lukianoff, president of FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) and Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist. The authors present a compelling, honest, apolitical, and well researched explanation of what is happening on campuses today and how this goal can be achieved for the next generation. It’s probably the most important book published in 2018.

We’ve all seen videos of the growing viciousness experienced on some college campuses in the past five years—professors mobbed for making seemingly trivial statements; controversial figures shouted down and physically attacked when they’re invited to speak on campus; trigger warnings, speech codes, and safe spaces featuring cookies, blankets and coloring books cropping up at universities across the land. We’re also seeing an increase in “call-out culture,” in which students and social media warriors gain status by identifying small offenses committed by a member of a community and then publicly “calling out” or shaming the perceived offender. This public cruelty has been given the ironic moniker of “virtue signaling.” No one seems willing to listen to the “enemy” or find common ground in order to restore harmony. What has gone wrong on our college campuses, and in America in general? And can it be reversed?

Lukianoff and Haidt say yes. In their book they identify three major “untruths” contributing to the problem: the rising, erroneous belief that humans are fragile and need to be protected from all risk; the belief that feelings are more powerful than reason and should always be trusted; and the belief that all people are either good or evil, leading to a dichotomous “us vs. them” tribalism. Related to these “untruths” is the idea that words are literally dangerous, which in turn justifies physical violence as a form of self defense. The bulk of their book addresses these three themes as they describe specific examples of violence, present surprising evidence of possible causes, and offer convincing solutions to reverse the trend.

As the president of FIRE, Lukianoff has been at the forefront of campus unrest as both an observer of the violence and a defender of free speech. In a section called “Bad Ideas in Action,” the authors describe several high-profile cases in which professors have been forced to resign for minor slights, or speakers have been shouted down and physically threatened. But they also include examples of police brutality and the neo-Nazi attack in Charlottesville last year. The book is apolitical in that it does not take sides or suggest that one particular party or viewpoint is primarily to blame. In fact, they sympathize with many of the noble concerns of what they call the iGen generation (those born after 1995), who sincerely care about racism, sexism, justice, and environmental issues. And they acknowledge that “right-wing provocateurs” often deliberately fuel the flames with their own vicious protests and threatening language. The book’s purpose is not to cast blame or fan the fires but to discover genuine causes and promote change.

The most useful and important part of the book is the section called “How Did We Get Here?” It notes a significant change on campuses beginning in 2013, when students began reporting high levels of anxiety and demanding trigger warnings to avoid uncomfortable experiences and safe spaces to recover from them. Lukianoff and Haidt connect this rise in anxiety not to the college experience but to the childhood experiences leading up to their entrance to college. These catalysts include anxiety and depression, “paranoid parenting,” a decline in unsupervised free play, increased political polarization, a hyper quest for social justice inspired by news reports and videos of violence or bullying against minorities, and college consumerism that gives students what they want instead of what they need in order to attract more students. In fact, they observe, college administrators did not cause the rise in “safetyism” on campus through some nefarious desire to end free speech; they simply responded to the alarming and genuine fearfulness and fragility expressed by the entering class of iGen students.

However well intentioned the institutional protections might be, the continuation of coddling is exactly the opposite of what students need. Colleges should be teaching them to cope, not to hide. I’m reminded of a student who used to spend every afternoon in the tutoring center where I worked, seeking help for every assignment. He was a likeable young man with a learning disability, and we were instructed to make sure he graduated, even if it meant feeding him every answer. After earning his bachelors degree, Nick entered the MBA program. Again his instructors and tutors coddled him. Instead of requiring him, for example, to do legitimate research to learn how businesses operate, they allowed him to make up his case studies and imagine businesses that simply would not exist or survive in the real world. Nor would he himself survive, in a real job.

Frustrated, I told him one day that he needed to research a real business for his case study, and not just make up a company and its product, sales, marketing, etc. I offered to help him find the research and analyze the data, so that he could learn how a real business operates. I was concerned that he was racking up thousands of dollars in student debt with no real skills or understanding and no hope of landing a job. The result? I was reprimanded. I had hurt Nick’s feelings, and that was considered more harmful than the reprimanders’ giving him years of false hope and poor education.

It is simply not true that humans are fragile and need to be protected from all risk. Actually, humans are “antifragile,” as Nasim Taleb explains in his 2007 bestseller The Black Swan. We need resistance to grow strong. Bones and muscles atrophy when they aren’t used, and so do emotional muscles. Students need to be taught how to cope with difficulties and traumas in order to grow mentally and emotionally strong. Lukianoff uses his own experience with CBT (cognitive behavior therapy) as an example of how confronting one’s fears and anxieties can make one stronger and able to cope. Sadly, many parents and college administrators are taking the opposite approach.

Can the trend on campus be reversed? Lukianoff and Haidt believe it can: “The more serious a problem gets, the more inducements there are for people, companies, and governments to find innovative solutions, whether driven by personal commitment, market forces, or political pressures” (265). Parents are becoming smarter about teaching children to become confident, independent problem solvers. Many schools are restoring recess and reducing homework to encourage free play, where they learn to socialize, calculate risk, negotiate differences, and adjudicate fairness. This year Utah became the first state to pass a “free-range parenting” bill, making it less likely that parents who allow their children to play outside will be charged with neglect. Many universities, recognizing that “safetyism” leads to fragility, are beginning to introduce coping skills instead of overprotection. The University of Chicago has created a new Statement on Principles of Free Expression that reaffirms its commitment to free and open inquiry, and other colleges are following its example, reducing the rising tendency of professors to watch what they say and not challenge students intellectually for fear of retaliation.

FIRE has produced a modified version of the statement to serve as a template for other schools. The book provides a list of questions that parents and prospective students should ask while selecting a college (261-62). In sum, this is not the end of civility on campus, nor is it the end of civility in the United States.

The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure is a reasoned, logical, unbiased and well researched assessment of the rise in verbal and physical violence on campuses across America. It offers sound advice that begins in the home and moves beyond the campus to embrace self governance. I’ve already sent it to several friends. You probably will too.

The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. Penguin Press, 2018, 338 pages.

 

 

 

 

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