The Coddled Kids Are All Right

The cover story of this month’s Atlantic magazine features Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s essay on “The Coddling of the American Mind.” Their thesis is simple: “A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.”

Unfortunately, their thesis is dead wrong: they completely misdiagnose the problem on campus, blaming a massive generational psychological shift for censorship on campus, instead of the real cause: a political problem of powerful administrative structures promoting repression at colleges.

Let’s begin with what Haidt and Lukianoff get right. It’s true that there are many disturbing examples of censorship on college campuses, and that FIRE has done incredible work in exposing and often solving these problems. It’s also true that the desire to protect students from offensive ideas is detrimental to both freedom and their overall mental health.

By latching on to a common (but untrue) myth of young people as coddled and protected (this generation has been exposed to far more sex, violence, profanity, and offensive ideas than any previous generations), Lukianoff and Haidt think they have uncovered a new psychological cause for censorship. The truth is far more mundane–censorship on campus is pretty much the same as it has always been: powerful administrators silence controversial faculty and students. It’s a political problem, not a psychological one.

Consider Haidt’s explanation of how he came to embrace this theory. Basically, he says, a student complained that he should have given a trigger warning, and another student complained that a painting he showed was sexist. Haidt contends, “I don’t mind if students complain directly to me.” But he worried that email “makes it easier for students to complain directly to campus authorities” and “Each complaint can lead to many rounds of meetings, and sometimes to formal charges and investigations.”

According to Haidt, he doesn’t mind students criticizing how he teaches. He only objects if they report it to campus authorities, and then only because it leads to a waste of time in meetings and the fear of being investigated and punished. So here I’ve uncovered the true cause of Haidt’s anxiety: he fears censorship by powerful administrative bodies. Yet he blames the students who complain for their psychological flaws, rather than the political system that threatens to punish him and that encourages repression rather than discussion. Indeed, a primary target of Haidt’s problem is technology: students aren’t more fragile than in the past, it’s simply easier with email to complain to the administration (and easier to prove what professors have said because it’s more often recorded or transmitted electronically than in the past).

Students have always complained about their professors, and professors have always been punished at times for expressing the wrong ideas. There is no “new” influx of censorship caused by a “new” generation of coddled students demanding repression. In loco parentis has always been a part of higher education, and in much more repressive forms in the past.

The difference is that this repression took the form of informal control. Students would be punished and expelled at the whim of a dean. Professors, too, were warned quietly and usually dismissed quietly as well. Now a whole formal structure of procedures exists which often can protect students and professors, but which can have a chilling effect because administrators are hired to investigate complaints rather than protect academic freedom.

Today, students frame those complaints in the language of harassment and emotional harm because that’s how administrators train them to do it, not because this generation is fundamentally more repressive than past generations.

Lukianoff and Haidt give plenty of examples of terrible censorship that has happened on college campuses in recent years. But there’s no evidence that censorship is getting worse on campus, and almost none of his anecdotes relate to students demanding repression. It’s all about administrators imposing repression in response to an isolated complaint (or sometimes no complaint at all).

Lukianoff and Haidt’s argument gets even weaker when they analyze the latest flavors of the day, “microaggressions” and “trigger warnings.”

Not one professor has been fired for failing to issue a trigger warning. Not a single college requires professors to issue trigger warnings. Not one student or professor has ever been expelled for what the college called a “microaggression.” Not a single college bans microaggressions in any speech code. This is a particularly devastating counterargument to Lukianoff and Haidt’s theory that microaggressions and trigger warnings are today’s leading wave of censorship on campus.

The term “microaggression” in particular is an example of exactly what free speech advocates call for: counterspeech. Instead of regulating offensive speech, the whole point of the term “microaggression” is to draw attention to bigotry without regulating it. Nobody uses the prefix “micro-“ as a demand for censorship.

Of course, any idea that becomes a trend on campus is dangerous in the hands of meddling administrators who think they are there to serve students by punishing people who upset them. Let me give you one example. At Denison University, some students responded to microaggressions by creating a Facebook movement, “We Too Are Denison.”

Inspired by a similar campaign at Harvard, the students respond to microaggressions like “where are you really from?” by posting pictures of themselves holding up notes that reply to such comments. It’s not even about shaming bigots (none of the people who expressed the offensive comments are ever identified), but about educating people. There is no demand for punishment, nor any call to ban microaggressions.

The Dean of Students at Denison praised the movement, but responded by urging students to utilize the “Response Protocol for Bias and Hate-Related Incidents” that punishes people for their ignorant views.

This is the perfect refutation of Lukianoff and Haidt’s argument: students at Denison want to use counterspeech and education, and it’s the administration pushing for codes and penalties.

The Steven Salaita case is another example of how wrong Lukianoff and Haidt are. On the surface, you might think this is another example of coddled students: the University of Illinois explicitly declared that they had to fire Salaita in order to protect students from a professor who might make them uncomfortable with his uncivil speech. But the real story reveals a very different picture than Lukianoff and Haidt’s notion of censorious students ordering around those obedient administrators. Even though Salaita is an outspoken professor, there’s no evidence that any students ever made a complaint about his teaching at Virginia Tech. Chancellor Phyllis Wise made the decision to fire Salaita on July 24, 2014, before even one student had emailed her about Salaita. Wise got plenty of complaints: from pundits and parents and alumni and donors and trustees, and those were the people who really mattered. Salaita was fired because he expressed controversial political ideas; protecting the students was just the latest excuse utilized by repressive administrators, not evidence of a movement for censorship led by a new generation of intellectual cowards.

Because Lukianoff and Haidt blame students rather than administrators as the fundamental problem, their solutions are badly distorted. They call for more administrative influence by “officially” discouraging trigger warnings and imposing “cognitive behavioral therapy” on all students.

We need to do more to teach students about how to debate ideas, how to deal with offensive expressions, and how to consider opposing viewpoints. But we don’t need to give the administration more power and hope that they use it against censorship. Instead, we need to pare down administrative authority on campus and give faculty and students more control over their own lives. We don’t need a campaign to change the hearts and minds of college students to accept freedom; we need a campaign to change the repressive policies and codes that limit freedom on campus.

10 thoughts on “The Coddled Kids Are All Right

  1. Good analysis. Thank you.

    I have to take issue with one thing, though: Your claim that “this generation has been exposed to far more sex, violence, profanity, and offensive ideas than any previous generations” may compromise the overall credibility of the otherwise strong argument you’re making in the essay. For sex and profanity, at least public performances thereof, it may be true. But violence and offensive ideas have been a constant in our culture (and in the human experience), unfortunately.

    For example, previous generations of students contended with Jim Crow and terrorist tactics against African American citizens; they witnessed or experienced the rise of fascism in the 1930s, the horror of the Holocaust, and the xenophobia-driven internment of U.S. citizens of Japanese descent. They lived through the Red Scare, the execution of the Rosenbergs, decades of violent backlash against unionism in the early 20th century and later against the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 60s. Just in the last century, there have been two world wars and Vietnam, with searing images of the latter televised every night on the evening news, along with images of the four students at Kent State who were shot by National Guardsmen on their own campus. Previous generations also saw a president assassinated, and later they saw his killer gunned down on live TV. And perhaps needless to add, violence against women has been a persistent feature of human society.

    These are only a few examples, but they make clear that previous generations have been exposed to plenty of offensive ideas and violence. The idea that “this generation has been exposed to far more” just doesn’t make sense.

    • You’re correct in terms of the real world; violent crime is at a 50-year low, and physical abuse of children is certainly less common now. And many of the injustices you mention were presented to most (white American) children as good things, cheered by their parents and authorities, which made them far more corrosive. I’m talking about media consumption: slasher movies and TV (I just saw a glimpse of a promo ad on TV for Hannibal showing something like a tongue being ripped from a person’s face), violent video games, and everything on the internet. My argument is that this media exposure hasn’t corrupted kids (which is the other conservative critique of our culture), and that it certainly hasn’t made them coddled and isolated from offensive ideas.

  2. John, this was a very good response to their article. There’s only one thing I’m confused about: I though you and some of the other contributors have argued in opposition to Trigger Warnings in the past. So why don’t you agree with Lukianoff in this case? (personally, I’m in favor of trigger warnings as long as they’re reasonable requests but I’m still curious to know what you think).

    • I think the AAUP, Lukianoff & Haidt, and I pretty much agree on trigger warnings: they’re a bad idea in general, professors are free to make them, and universities can’t require them. However, I think trigger warnings are one of the most insignificant threats to academic freedom out there, precisely because no one is being required to use them. I think voluntary trigger warnings are a bad idea because they tend to be the old “controversy warnings” that reinforce the notion that there’s something abnormal and dangerous about controversial ideas in the classroom. But I think all these warnings about trigger warnings are overwrought.

      • I’m aware that I’m commenting nearly a year after you’ve published this so I apologize for that. Anyway, I don’t mean to be combative but I have never understood this insistence that trigger warnings = controversial ideas are bad. How does saying “Heads, this book/movie/etc. has graphic depictions of _______” constitute “this book is bad, it’s ideas are bad, here’s how you should think about it.” In every instance I’ve seen them used they’ve function as a sort of general disclaimer or a specified “viewer discretion is advised.”

        While I don’t think they should be mandatory, I find them so benign and innocuous I don’t see what all the outrage is about.

      • I think the fear of trigger warnings is overwrought, but they do stigmatize certain content as dangerous. If you’re a professor who wants to avoid trouble, maybe you would rather get rid of the content instead of giving a trigger warning. Maybe the fact that you gave a trigger warning can be used against you if a student or a parent complains about the content.

  3. Pingback: On Becoming the Enemy We Fight | The Academe Blog

  4. John, I appreciate your cogent response to this widely disseminated article; I hadn’t really given it enough thought. I would add that ironically, it’s the pro-Israel element that has, in my experience, been the most repressive regarding political correctness, “sensitivity,” etc. That’s been my experience at none other than UI-Urbana-Champaign. Best, David Green

  5. I appreciate this piece. One question: the argument can be made that Erika Christakis was trying to make a similar point about taking power out of the hands of administrators. It can also be argued that the students at Yale are wanting administrators to have more power over faculty and students (see their call for some mechanism of control in relation to latest christakis comments). Any comments on that aspect? Thanks.

    • Yes, I think that’s the biggest flaw of these student protests. They are being taught by administrators that the goal should be to hire more administrators and give administrators more power.

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