In 1987, Allan Bloom dropped a cultural bomb on to U.S. intellectual soil with his surprise bestseller, The Closing of the American Mind:How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students. Bloom (now) famously opened his diatribe against cultural permissiveness and political correctness with the following words:
"There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative."
Fast forward to 2015.
In a cover article in The Atlantic titled, "The Coddling of the American Mind," authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt explore how in the name of "emotional well-being" college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don't like, and seeking punishment of those who give even accidental offense.
In other words, things aren't just "relative" anymore. "A movement is arising… to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense."
And, of course, the idea of what causes discomfort or gives offense is highly... relative.
Two terms loom large on today's campuses: first, "microaggressions." These are small actions or word choices that "seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless."
The second term is "trigger warnings." This is what a professor is expected to issue "if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response."
Sound good on the surface?
Keep in mind the "relative" aspect.
During the 2014-2015 school year, the deans and department chairs at the 10 University of California system schools were presented by administrators at faculty leader-training sessions with examples of microaggressions. The list of offensive statements included: "America is the land of opportunity" and "I believe the most qualified person should get the job."
As Lukainoff and Haidt note, this is beyond political correctness. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into "safe spaces" where "young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable… [and] this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim."
Ready for another term? Try "vindictive protectiveness."
In essence, in the name of emotional well-being, students can eliminate anything they do not want to think about, read about, or be challenged about. And penalize those who would expose them to it.
In the name of "offense."
"Emotional reasoning dominates many campus debates and discussions," write Lukianoff and Haidt. "A claim that someone's words are 'offensive' is not just an expression of one's own subjective feeling of offendedness. It is, rather, a public charge that the speaker has done something objectively wrong."
For example, a student at Indiana University-Purdue read a book titled Notre Dame vs. the Klan, a book which honored student opposition to the Ku Klux Klan when it marched on Notre Dame in 1924. The cover of the book featured a picture of a Klan rally. Despite the book's actual content, the student was found guilty of racial harassment by the university's Affirmative Action Office.
Someone was "offended."
Or consider "Hump Day" at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. Inspired by Wednesday being known as "hump" day in the workweek, students would be allowed to see and pet a camel.
But a group of students created a Facebook group protesting the event for animal cruelty, for being a waste of money, and for being insensitive to people from the Middle East (despite the event being devoid of any reference to Middle Eastern peoples).
The event was canceled because the "program [was] dividing people and would make for an uncomfortable and possible unsafe environment."
All to say, the "thin argument 'I'm offended' becomes an unbeatable trump card."
This is breeding a generation to "focus on small or accidental slights." Even more, to then "relabel the people who have made such remarks as aggressors."
Lukianoff and Haidt rightly opine, "What are we doing to our students if we encourage them to develop extra-thin skin in the years just before they leave the cocoon of adult protection and enter the workforce? Would they not be better prepared to flourish if we taught them to question their own emotional reactions, and to give people the benefit of the doubt? ... If students graduate believing that they can learn nothing from people they dislike or from those with whom they disagree, we will have done them a great intellectual disservice."
They are right.
And it is a closing of the mind that goes beyond anything Bloom would have ever dreamed.
Except in a nightmare.
James Emery White
Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, "The Coddling of the American Mind," The Atlantic, September 2015, pp. 42-52, read online.
Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students (Simon & Schuster, 1987)