What do students learn in college? Increasingly, they’re learning to be big babies, write Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in The Atlantic. “Trigger warnings,” “microaggressions” and the zeal to “scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense” are threatening students’ mental and emotional health, they write.
Campuses are supposed to be “safe spaces” where “young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable.” Never is heard a discouraging word and the skies are not cloudy all day.
Students expect college authorities “to act as both protectors and prosecutors,” they write. It’s a continuation of the message delivered by helicopter parents: “Life is dangerous, but adults will do everything in their power to protect you from harm, not just from strangers but from one another as well.”
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.
Today’s college students are more likely to suffer from “severe psychological problems,” according to a 2013 survey of campus mental-health directors. Surveys also show students report high and rising rates of emotional distress, write Lukianoff and Haidt.
Cognitive behavioral therapy tries “to minimize distorted thinking” –such as overgeneralizing, discounting positives, and emotional reasoning, they write. People learn to recognize when their thinking is distorted, “describe the facts of the situation, consider alternative interpretations, and then choose an interpretation of events more in line with those facts.”
When people . . . free themselves from the repetitive irrational thoughts that had previously filled so much of their consciousness—they become less depressed, anxious, and angry.
The parallel to formal education is clear: cognitive behavioral therapy teaches good critical-thinking skills, the sort that educators have striven for so long to impart. By almost any definition, critical thinking requires grounding one’s beliefs in evidence rather than in emotion or desire, and learning how to search for and evaluate evidence that might contradict one’s initial hypothesis. But does campus life today foster critical thinking? Or does it coax students to think in more-distorted ways?
Freshman orientation — now devoted to warning students not to offend others — should teach them this kind of thinking, Lukianoff and Haidt suggest. Students can learn to deal with offensive words and ideas without mommy, daddy or the dean of students.