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.