August 16, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Yet another article about microaggressions and trigger warnings and the like, this one in the Atlantic, written by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. Oh dear, college students are demanding to be treated like toddlers. Worse, colleges and universities are giving in to those demands.

“The Coddling of the the American Mind” (here) follows the standard template for these articles. It grabs you by the lapels with news of egregious examples
  • “law students asking . . . professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress”
  • “by some campus guidelines, it is a microaggression to ask an Asian American or Latino American ‘Where were you born?,’ because this implies that he or she is not a real American.”
Never mind that it was one law student asking one professor, not students (plural) asking professors (plural), and never mind that the professor apparently did not accommodate the request. (The New Yorker article they cite is here) Never mind that the “Where were you born?” notice is part of “guidelines,” not a formal regulation.

What these examples most remind me of is the song “Trouble” from “The Music Man.”

Well, either you are closing your eyes to a situation you do not wish to acknowledge, or you are not aware of the caliber of disaster indicated by the presence of a pool table in your community. [You can see and hear the entire song here.]

But the problem isn’t pool.

Well, you got trouble my friend, right here in Campus City. With a capital T and that rhymes with P and that stands for Political Correctness.

Trouble indeed. But how much trouble? Usually, if you want to know how big a problem something is, you try to measure how much of it there is. The you-got-trouble forces will usually provide numbers, and while these can and often do fall into the category of “making shit up” (“50,000 children kidnapped each year!”), at least the moral entrepreneurs recognize the obligation to estimate the size of the problem. But the people decrying the microaggression mentality don’t even bother to make up numbers.  Haidt is a social scientist, so I assume that if statistical estimates existed, he would have included them. Instead, he and his co-author are left with anecdotes, probably from the files of Lukianoff’s organization FIRE.

We’ve been here before. The title of the Lukianoff-Haidt article alludes to a book of thirty years ago, The Closing of the American Mind, by Alan Bloom.* Bloom too told us we got trouble. Universities had abandoned the Western canon, putting materials from other traditions into the curriculum, and all for political purposes. The required non-Western course “in every case I have seen . . . has a demagogic intention.” It was all part of the liberal agenda, “the imperative to promote equality, stamp out racism, sexism and elitism (the peculiar crimes of our democratic society), as well as war.” And just as Prof. Harold Hill the music man railed about “ragtime – shameless music,” Bloom warned that “Rock music has one appeal only, a barbaric appeal, to sexual desire –  not love, not eros, but sexual desire undeveloped and untutored.”

Lukianoff and Haidt are not bothered by sex, drugs, and rock & roll (or if they are, they keep their misgivings to themselves). But like Prof. Harold Hill, they want to arouse our concern about what will happen to the children – “the effects of this new protectiveness on the students themselves.” 

What are those effects? Well, you got trouble my friends. 

It prepares them poorly for professional life, which often demands intellectual engagement with people and ideas one might find uncongenial or wrong. The harm may be more immediate, too. A campus culture devoted to policing speech and punishing speakers is likely to engender patterns of thought that are surprisingly similar to those long identified by cognitive behavioral therapists as causes of depression and anxiety. The new protectiveness may be teaching students to think pathologically.

The problem is that Lukianoff and Haidt provide not one bit of evidence to substantiate their claims that four years at a PC university has any of these long-range effects on the graduates.

So Lukianoff and Haidt provide no measure of the independent variables, nor do they offer even anecdotal evidence about the outcome variables.**

Instead, the article is about the horrors of trigger warnings, guidelines, regulations, etc. – certainly a legitimate concern. But mostly the article is about cognitive styles – different ways of thinking, some more useful than others. More specifically it is a critique of the cognitive styles that provide the basis for the protectiveness mentality. On this, Lukianoff and Haidt have much worthwhile to say, and I hope to get to it in a later post.

* Every few years a conservative will publish a liberals-are-ruining-the-universities book – Cultural Literacy, Illiberal Education, Tenured Radicals, even back to Buckley’s God and Man at Yale.  Conservatives often have the Presidency, usually dominate at least one house of Congress, have had the majority in the Supreme Court for nearly half a century, control most state governments, business, the military. You’d think that liberal influence at few dozen college campuses wouldn’t be such a big irritant. But you’d be wrong. Can you say “hegemony”?

** Lukianoff and Haidt do provide statistics showing that psychological and emotional problems are more frequent on campuses now than in the past. But they offer no comparisons between campuses that are more PC and those that are less so, or between students who have more of the protective mentality and those who have less. They don’t even provide comparative data on kids who didn’t go to college. And they caution, “We do not mean to imply simple causation,” the academic’s version of “Just sayin.’”

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