August 11, 2015

GREG LUKIANOFF AND JONATHAN HAIDT: . . . have a terrific piece in The Atlantic, “The Coddling of the American Mind.”

The press has typically described these developments as a resurgence of political correctness. That’s partly right, although there are important differences between what’s happening now and what happened in the 1980s and ’90s. That movement sought to restrict speech (specifically hate speech aimed at marginalized groups), but it also challenged the literary, philosophical, and historical canon, seeking to widen it by including more-diverse perspectives. The current movement is largely about emotional well-being. More than the last, it presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. 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 more than the last, this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally. You might call this impulse vindictive protectiveness. It is creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse. . . .

There’s a saying common in education circles: Don’t teach students what to think; teach them how to think. The idea goes back at least as far as Socrates. Today, what we call the Socratic method is a way of teaching that fosters critical thinking, in part by encouraging students to question their own unexamined beliefs, as well as the received wisdom of those around them. Such questioning sometimes leads to discomfort, and even to anger, on the way to understanding.

But vindictive protectiveness teaches students to think in a very different way. It prepares them poorly for professional life, which often demands intellectual engagement with people and ideas one might find uncongenial or wrong. The harm may be more immediate, too. 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.

The whole piece is excellent.

Sadly, the Socratic method is virtually extinct in undergraduate classrooms. In law school, where it has historically been the predominant lecture method, I’d say it’s now a vulnerable species.

It takes time and patience to teach in the Socratic method (one has to slog through many initial irrelevant answers and work to pull the student toward the relevant). It also requires students to think outside their comfort zone, as the teacher purposefully challenges the student’s answers. But it works like nothing else I’ve ever seen/experienced to instill critical thinking skills.

In today’s hypersensitive classroom environment, Socratic learning should probably come with a “TRIGGER WARNING: This class may make you think.” And this, of course, would cause legions of complaints and “accommodations” requests by delicate snowflakes who prefer to live their lives in gloriously, depressingly isolated “hear no evil” mode.

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