A Comfortable Campus?

TDR spoke with Jonathan Haidt about the new "comfort culture" on campuses

TDR spoke with Jonathan Haidt about the new “comfort culture” on campuses.

Despite his reputation as an athlete and outdoorsman, Bill Buckley spent the summer of 1950 hunkered down like a man on a mission. As a newly minted Yale grad, he worked quickly to record his college’s culture and quirks while they were still fresh in his memory. Within months, Buckley blessed the world with God and Man at Yale, perhaps the first work to capture the strange shift that would soon turn American higher education on its head.

By Buckley’s telling, Yale and its peers had ceased preparing students to storm the world as individuals. For all their bluster about leadership, graduates were likelier than ever to choose the coziest possible path toward adult life.

One wonders what Buckley would’ve said about today, if he’d gotten the chance to wade through the puddle at the bottom of the higher-ed slippery slope. If we trace a line from God and Man through to the present day, it stands to reason that his take on today’s collegiate culture would have looked a lot like “The Coddling of the American Mind,” an essay by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and free-speech advocate Greg Lukianoff, which was published in The Atlantic last September.

Haidt and Lukianoff interviewed faculty members from campuses across the country in order to understand how far we’ve come since the ‘50s, when students choosing to avoid risky career paths seemed worth raising an alarm about. As the article sums up, many of today’s students have raised the standard for comfort by a few notches. On top of safety from the risks of adult life, young people are increasingly demanding safety from “harmful” words and thoughts.

In an interview with The Dartmouth Review, Mr. Haidt pinpointed the precise moment he was inspired to pursue the line of research that led to “The Coddling.” He recalled an incident during a psychology course he was teaching in which a student objected to his use of the sirens in the Odyssey as an example of human temptation. The student, of course, claimed that the sirens were a sexist symbol and challenged Haidt’s choice to include such insensitive material in his lectures.

Stories like this are all too familiar now, which makes it hard to believe that this wave of political correctness began within the past three years. One of the first cornerstones of Haidts research was to locate beginning of the current moment, and based on Google search trends, he believes the heyday of terms like “safe spaces” and “microaggressions” began as recently as the fall of 2013.

A broad shift in parenting style in the 1980s is among the top causes behind the outbursts of fragility we see on campuses today. “We had a real crime wave about thirty years ago,” Haidt recalled. “Parents became much more afraid for their children’s safety.”

He implied that legitimate fears about children’s safety were overblown to create a culture in which kids were shielded from every risk that might possibly puncture their sense of safety. Zero-tolerance bullying policies were another invention from this era that made it less likely that kids would experience conflict before college.

“You have Millenials coming to college, and they have been trained to become what sociologists call ‘moral dependents.’” By moral dependents, Haidt was referring to young people’s increasing desire that “adults” (a term which many twenty-two-year-olds claim no longer applies to them) mediate every conflict they find themselves in. The twelve-year-old who reported his peer to the teacher for calling him a rude name has grown up into the Yale student who doesn’t see fit to tell his peers off himself if he thinks their Halloween costumes are beyond the pale. Instead of sorting through tough situations, this generation has been trained to prosecute.

Haidt believes that a second cause of today’s comfort fundamentalism is the fact that progressive faculty members have gained overwhelming control of most elite colleges’ faculties. His research suggests that the ratio of liberal to conservative professors at American universities used to hover around two-to-one in the 1960s. But today “if you look at the social sciences, it’s more like ten-to-one.” With a growing core of faculty support, it has become much harder to reign in the silliest excesses of the students fighting for a sterilized campus.

It must be pointed out that not all of this is new. After all, the modern term political correctness was born in the 1990s, when the first wave of “social justice warriors” emerged to raise the standard concerning what types of language should be considered impermissible. But Haidt draws a distinction between the old class and the new, saying that today’s PC advocates believe that insensitive language causes an almost physical harm which must be policed in a similar manner to the way we police violence.

Dartmouth’s Black Lives Matter protest last November offered a vivid example of this dangerous conflation of literal violence with juvenile insensitivity. Marching through Baker-Berry, Dartmouth students adopted the mantle of a national movement to spread awareness about unjust sentencing and other issues facing the black community, but directed their ire at Dartmouth under the assumption that the racial issues present here deserve the same type of condemnation. Haidt addressed the mix-up, saying, “Universities are some of the most progressive, egalitarian places in the country.” He added that students’ exaggerated claims, like the idea that white supremacy reigns on elite campuses, could damage the credibility of the legitimate points of the national Black Lives Matter cause.

There’s no doubt that progressive professors have helped clear the way for the current campus climate. But Haidt was careful to note that true support for the student crusaders is usually limited to a small core within colleges’ faculties. After the protests at Yale last fall, he scrutinized a letter of support that some Yale professors sent to the student demonstrators, and found that members of the humanities and ethnic studies departments claimed an overwhelming share of the signatures. As Haidt points out, it makes sense to push for zealous protests on campus “if you’re a professor of anthropology and your work is primarily surrounding institutional racism.”

Haidt believes that administrators have compounded the problem by tightening their trigger fingers; colleges now use their formal judicial processes to step into smaller and smaller student dramas. Dependent students expect administrators to lay down the law, but colleges also face external pressure to take an activist role toward student life. Haidt claims that, “the Department of Education is one of the villains in this whole story,” because of their insistence that colleges adhere to strict guidelines for settling student disputes.

The bulk of professors at these schools, and even those who count themselves as staunch progressives, are far from being on-board with the comfort-seeking students’ antics. Haidt has noticed that outside of the departments that contain the usual suspects, “most of the faculty are kind of creeped out by these illiberal tends.” STEM professors are particularly unlikely to buy into the new culture of overprotection.

But on the whole, faculty members who have doubts about the merits of political correctness are rarely moved to push back against it publicly. One anonymous state university professor described this trend in a Vox article titled “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me.” According to the June 2015 essay, most professors who oppose their illiberal-tending students are either afraid of stoking their anger by taking a stand, or are just satisfied to let them form whatever culture they wish.

Of course, college students have always had a utopian streak. Part of the purpose of a college campus is to allow young men and women to play around with ethics before we start our careers, families, and lives as full-blown citizens. But today’s student politics have become divorced from the world outside the campus gates. The gap has grown wide enough that it’s become tough to imagine how the most coddled Millennials will make the leap to adulthood.

“By the time you’re 21 or 22, if you’ve been raised by adult protectors and not been independent, that is going to shape you,” Haidt said when asked to predict how students’ transition to adulthood will look. He expressed hope that the adult world would act as a natural corrective to many students’ naïve worldviews. However, he remains convinced that bringing the comfort mindset to the professional world will cause plenty of tension.

“We’ll see a rise in workplace litigation,” he predicted, suggesting that Millennials will demand a higher standard of treatment than previous generations, and will be willing to seek external arbitration to make it happen.

In the grand scheme of the political life that awaits Millenials, workplace disputes will likely be dwarfed by the clashes that PC culture creates between elites and the middle and working classes. College-educated young people will try to reform American culture to gel with the values they picked up on campus, while both whites and minorities from lower class backgrounds will continue to have little patience for being told to worry about “microaggressions.”

“The Trump surge is in part people saying they’ve had enough of PC,” Haidt said, describing the way the class divide over culture is already playing out in the presidential race. Haidt was careful to criticize Trump for his overall rhetoric, but he believes that the build-up of anger about self-absorbed elites has been a prominent ingredient of their success.

He summed up this popular backlash to PC saying, “people are being asked to participate in a shared common understanding that departs from their common sense.” Just like college administrators, middle-class Americans are able to go along with new ideas about sensitivity that don’t mesh with what they know and feel. But perhaps this can’t go on forever. Haidt believes that we’ve reached a point of mass “reactance,” a term he used to describe people’s angry response to being told what to do. If we’ve already passed the tipping point in the way the masses relate to elites, we might be in for a crisis of Marxist proportions when the most zealous disciples of the coddling culture enter positions of power.

When Bill Buckley wrote God and Man at Yale, he anchored his chapter about students’ desire for comfort with a quotation from Yale’s dean. “The journalists tell us that security and the avoidance of risk are ends that loom foremost in your minds,” said William C. De Vane to graduates of the Class of 1949. He continued by summing up the meaning of this trend in stark terms: “If these periodicals are correct… then Yale has failed.”

De Vane’s words spell a grim sentence for colleges today. If the Yale of the postwar period failed her students by ceasing to instill “the spirit of the ‘49ers,” how many times over have Dartmouth and her peers failed by cranking out graduates who place mental comfort above all?

Whether or not colleges bear the blame for the ongoing growth of the comfort-first culture, we’ll never overcome its consequences unless colleges recommit to their old intellectual mission. Restoring a tradition of student independence will take all the guts that our administrators can muster, and frankly, they could never pull it off without the help of students who are as passionate about independence as the activists are about emotional safety. By engaging the research of scholars like Haidt, dedicated students and faculty alike can gain a fuller picture of collegiate culture’s shortcomings, and figure out the best ways to restore bits of the integrity we’ve lost.