Why Campuses Have Become Timid

You’ve heard the lament: College campuses these days have become intellectual hothouses; students force teachers and administrators to crush any hint of controversial thinking; students insist on atmospheres purged of ideas that might upset them. In the new issue of The Atlantic, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt offer an analysis of the phenomenon. But why didn’t they invite a historian to their party? For two smart guys, their answers are sadly shorn of any of the historical context that best explains our current “snowflake” syndrome.

The authors review the recent happenings on college campuses. Professors complain that they are muzzled and beleaguered. Students who offend are crushed under the bootheels of climate enforcers. Comedians no longer perform on college campuses.

Macro-aggressions . . .

Macro-aggressions . . .

Instead of feisty arenas in which a universe of ideas battle ferociously, some college campuses have become daycare centers at naptime, the authors charge. Why?

The recent trend toward what Haidt and Lukianoff call “vindictive protectiveness,” they argue, results from generational trends. Today’s college students grew up wearing helmets everywhere. They grew up on Facebook; they grew up in an era of vicious partisan polarization. The results, they conclude, are more than sad. They are scary portents of the ways campuses have pushed students to think in negative ways.

All these things make sense, but they ignore the obvious explanation from the history of higher education itself. Instead of as a psychological “vindictive protectiveness,” an historian of higher ed might explain today’s student activism as an exhibition of “insurgent inclusionism.”

Today’s sometimes-excessive zeal for inclusionism might be traced most immediately to campus tumults of the 1960s. To take examples only from my home state of New York, battles at Columbia, Cornell, and City College of New York all laid the historic seeds for today’s campus activism.

At Columbia, student leftists took over the administration building and helped set a precedent that evil lurked incarnate behind the carved doors of deans’ offices. At Cornell, students demonstrated that no excess of violence would be too much in order to promote their agenda. At CCNY, the very structure of the school itself was turned on its head.

These were all very different episodes, but all of them set the precedent for student moral activism. The good guys in every case were those who were willing to go to any extreme—even shotgun-wielding threats—to create “inclusive” atmospheres.

The moral definitions were established. Those who resorted to extreme measures to promote more egalitarian campuses, places more welcoming to non-white, female, and underrepresented students were the good guys. Those who resisted were the bad guys.

These days, talk of “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” seems an obvious historical development of that moral logic. Insurgent inclusionism dictates extreme tactics to be sure that no historically underrepresented group is left out. Why do student activists take such extreme measures against “microaggressions?” Because such things are seen as the latest flowering of white, male campus elitism.

Haidt and Lukianoff are likely aware of this obvious historical trajectory. I understand that they are mainly interested in other questions. Furthermore, I’m a fan of Haidt’s work. I considered it a big compliment when a recent reviewer planned to teach a culture-war class using my recent book along with Haidt’s Righteous Mind. As a psychologist, however, Haidt seems to ignore the obvious historical logic for our current campus climate, and that historical logic is important.

Without it, it’s easy to get caught up in the alarmist tone of the article. As I’ve argued before, today’s campuses are not as monotonous and timid as these sorts of articles imply. We should not tremble at the thought that student activists are up in arms for moral causes—even if we disagree with the tenor of their protests.

Campus activists these days consciously model themselves on the strident moralism of their 1960s ancestors. Do some of their protests verge into the merely silly? Yes. But overall, the logic of their protests has developed from the best traditions of student activism.

We don’t need to define away student protests as psychologically suspect.

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Trigger . . . a Celebration

Do universities these days coddle their students? Do progressive dreams of inclusive campuses result in hothouse indignation? That’s the charge from pundits as students complain of hostile classrooms. Far from a problem, though, this trigger-warning brouhaha should be cause to celebrate, for two reasons.

Warning: Woman turns into a tree...

Warning: Woman turns into a tree…

In recent days, commentators have leaped upon a story from Columbia University. A group of students published a complaint about insensitive classrooms and professors. One student had been forced to endure a discussion of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, replete with stories of rape and assault. The problem was not just Ovid. The students wrote,

like so many texts in the Western canon, it contains triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities in the classroom. These texts, wrought with histories and narratives of exclusion and oppression, can be difficult to read and discuss as a survivor, a person of color, or a student from a low-income background.

Even worse, when students complained about these texts, or suggested other authors such as Toni Morrison, they were pooh-poohed or dismissed.

Predictably, writers from a variety of religious and ideological backgrounds have pointed out some of the over-the-top elements of such student protests. Atheist author Jerry Coyne denounced the students’ “Literature Fascism.” Conservative columnist Peggy Noonan cussed the over-sensitivity of the “trigger-happy generation.”

Noonan pulled no punches. She blasted this “significant and growing form of idiocy” as something that must be addressed. “I notice lately,” Noonan goes on,

that some members of your generation are being called, derisively, Snowflakes. Are you really a frail, special and delicate little thing that might melt when the heat is on?

Do you wish to be known as the first generation that comes with its own fainting couch? Did first- and second-wave feminists march to the barricades so their daughters and granddaughters could act like Victorians with the vapors?

Everyone in America gets triggered every day. Many of us experience the news as a daily microaggression. Who can we sue, silence or censor to feel better?

Ouch. Before we talk about why these crusty columnists give us cause for celebration, let us make a few complaints. First, contra Noonan, this is not a generational thing. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are keenly aware, Columbia and other elite schools are nearly beside the point when it comes to understanding the broad picture of higher education in this country. They attract a tremendously disproportionate share of commentator attention, but almost no one attends such schools.

And even in the calculated environment of Columbia, the student protesters represent only a tiny sliver of the student body. As Noonan smartly pointed out, the reaction from other Columbia students was not sympathetic. One student wrote, “These girls’ parents need a refund.”

Second, anyone of a certain age can attest to the fact that these same discussions have been happening—with different buzzwords—for the last fifty years. I remember my days as a student radical, back in the 1980s. Sure enough, at one of our indignant protest meetings with a dean, one student complained that the dean’s cigarette smoke was causing her some anguish. His response? Deal with it, Snowflake.   Nowadays, of course, I can’t imagine any college official smoking during a meeting, but the general tenor of student complaint was the same.

In spite of all that, this dustup over trigger warnings should give us cause for celebration. Why? First of all, it has brought together indignant “kids-these-days” jeremiads from all sides of our campus culture wars. Atheists and conservative Catholics, liberals and conservatives, Jerry Coynes and Peggy Noonans . . . a variety of pundits can agree that this sort of student activism is both silly and counterproductive. Any time we can have people from different culture-war perspectives agree on something, we can build on that.

Second, as historian Andrew Hartman has pointed out recently, simply having students who seem to care about Ovid and Toni Morrison is a refreshing sort of culture-war problem. Too often, those kinds of disputes over the proper types of college reading have been replaced by more frightening existential questions of whether or not colleges will fund literature departments.

So rejoice, all those who yearn for robust college campus life! When students are interested in the morals of their reading lists, we might suspect that they are actually doing the reading. When students come together to protest against campus policies, we might hope that they will remain active citizens as they age and fatten. And finally, whenever an issue can bring together curmudgeonly elders from a variety of culture-war positions, there is hope that we all can continue to have robust, controversial conversations.