The September issue of the Atlantic features an article that makes a strong claim: college campuses today are so focused on not offending anyone, ever, that they increasingly stay away from anything controversial. The authors, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, call this phenomenon “The Coddling of the American Mind” and argue that “in the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. . . . Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and likely to worsen mental health on campus.”
Lukianoff and Haidt offer a number of startling examples in support of their claim: law students at Harvard are asking the faculty not to teach rape law because it may traumatize some students; the University of California system’s schools identified “America is the land of opportunity” as a potentially offensive statement that should be avoided; Indiana University—Purdue University deemed a student who was reading Notre Dame vs. the Klan guilty of racism. Particularly troubling to the authors of the essay is the proliferation of “trigger warnings,” “alerts that professors are supposed to issue if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response.”
Lukianoff and Haidt aren’t the only ones disturbed by what they see as a harmful trend. Others have written about a raft of “disinvitations” issued to people who had been invited to speak on campus; the institutions withdrew the invitation when students, parents, or anyone else protested against the invitee. And in late August, Inside Higher Education reported on student protest at Duke over a suggested (not required) reading of Alison Bechdel’s award-winning graphic memoir, Fun Home. This protest is especially surprising to me given that I have taught Fun Home for years at Stanford without the slightest ripple of anything other than admiration for Bechdel’s gorgeously drawn and written coming-of-age story, which has since gone on to become a highly-acclaimed musical that took in numerous Tony awards this year.
Like most campuses, Stanford prides itself on its openness to ideas, as a campus that encourages intellectual curiosity and debate. So I haven’t experienced the kind of disinvitations or “trigger warnings” that the authors of the Atlantic article write about first hand. Stanford students aren’t shy about expressing their opinions – and they are ready to protest if necessary. Some years ago, after learning that President Bush was making an “unannounced” visit to the Hoover Institute on campus, they quickly massed over a thousand students to block the motorcade in protest of the President’s war policies. But I can’t think of a person who was invited to campus and then “disinvited” because the University feared that the speaker would offend some students or faculty.
Lukianoff and Haidt go on to argue that openness to alternative opinions and to controversy are hallmarks of strong critical thinkers, citing Aristotle, Buddha, and Marcus Aurelius among others. Further, they argue that “coddling” or protecting students from contentious views actually harms rather than supports mental health. Those in rhetoric and writing studies would be quick to agree, pointing out that attending carefully to alternate points of view (Dissoi Logoi) is part of what it means to be an effective rhetor/writer/speaker/thinker. Perhaps it’s more important than ever to stress this aspect of rhetorical thinking and performing in our classes, and to invite students to explore the delicate (sometimes treacherously so) balance between protecting free speech and respecting the right to protest against speech that is truly dangerous to the University and its community. Surely, though, it isn’t necessary to “coddle” students rather than to engage them in exploring and maintaining that balance.