Cod­dled uni stu­dents re­flect a loss of En­light­en­ment val­ues

The West Australian - - OPINION - Daniel Han­nan

It’s the sud­den­ness that’s so shock­ing. Un­til about five years ago, no one had heard of “safe spa­ces”, “trig­ger warn­ings”, “cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tions” or “mi­cro-ag­gres­sions”. Now, univer­sity life seems to re­volve around them.

Ox­ford’s law stu­dents are given for­mal warn­ings be­fore they read about gory crimes. Its English stu­dents are coun­selled be­fore en­coun­ter­ing lit­er­a­ture that might up­set them. Un­der­grad­u­ates are given a trig­ger warn­ing, for ex­am­ple, when pre­sented with Robert Low­ell’s 1964 poem For the Union Dead be­cause it con­tains the N-word. Never mind that Low­ell, a com­mit­ted civil rights cam­paigner, was writ­ing a homage to black sol­diers.

What is new is not left-wing rad­i­cal­ism on cam­pus, but the loudly pro­claimed fragility of our stu­dents, their de­ter­mi­na­tion to take of­fence at the small­est thing, their de­mand that noth­ing should make them feel un­com­fort­able (a logic that they don’t ex­tend to the tar­gets of their protests).

Con­sider the re­cent ag­i­ta­tion against the statue of Ce­cil Rhodes at my old Ox­ford col­lege, Oriel. It is easy enough to imag­ine stu­dents abus­ing the di­a­mond mag­nate in the 1990s or, in­deed, in the 1960s. But those stu­dents would have been ag­gres­sive and dom­i­neer­ing in their anti-colo­nial­ism. The tone of to­day’s demon­stra­tors is very dif­fer­ent. It is in­tro­verted, in­jured, plain­tive.

Un­der­grad­u­ates com­plain that they “suf­fer vi­o­lence” ev­ery time they walk past the lit­tle guano-en­crusted stat­uette — which is set so high in its niche that they must be mak­ing quite an ef­fort to look at the thing they’re de­ter­mined to be wounded by.

What has changed? The an­swer is pro­vided in a bril­liant new book, The Cod­dling of the Amer­i­can Mind, by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. Haidt, a psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor at New York Univer­sity, is, for my money, cur­rently the most im­por­tant so­cial sci­en­tist in the world.

The el­e­va­tion of pas­sive-ag­gres­sive vic­tim­hood has spread with as­ton­ish­ing ra­pid­ity over the past three years from Amer­i­can cam­puses to those in Bri­tain, Canada and Aus­tralia. Yet it re­mains largely un­known in Europe, let alone fur­ther afield.

“Safe­ty­ism,” Haidt tells me, “is a uniquely An­glo­sphere prob­lem”. In part, this is be­cause ideas travel swiftly within a lin­guis­tic and cul­tural con­tin­uum; the French, by con­trast, in­stinc­tively dis­trust Amer­i­can im­ports. It also re­flects, Haidt be­lieves, the way top uni­ver­si­ties in the English-speak­ing world are mod­elled, ul­ti­mately, on Oxbridge.

For­mal ed­u­ca­tion also starts ear­lier in the English-speak­ing democ­ra­cies than in Europe and that, for Haidt, is part of the prob­lem. “We’ve over-sched­uled, over-pro­tected and over-su­per­vised our kids,” he says. They are less likely to walk or cy­cle to school. Play­grounds have been made risk-free. So­cial me­dia en­cour­ages young peo­ple to think of op­posed opin­ions, not as an in­tel­lec­tual test, but as a form of moral con­tam­i­na­tion.

This is far more wor­ry­ing than “po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness gone mad”. We are turn­ing our backs on the cen­tral idea of the En­light­en­ment. Over the past four cen­turies, at least in the West, we have ab­sorbed a set of pre­cepts that do not come nat­u­rally. We have taught our­selves that some­one can dis­agree with us with­out be­ing wicked; that peo­ple whose ways seem strange might yet pos­sess wis­dom; that we don’t know ev­ery­thing, and that lis­ten­ing to new ideas broad­ens our un­der­stand­ing. This last idea — the recog­ni­tion of our ig­no­rance — is the foun­da­tion of mod­ern sci­ence.

How can we pull out of the nose­dive? In the long-term, we should be read­ier to let our kids play un­su­per­vised, de­vise their own games, set their own rules, work out what to do if they gash a knee. In the short-term, lead­ers of our uni­ver­si­ties need to de­fend free speech, in let­ter and in spirit. And in the im­me­di­ate term? Well, read­ing Haidt and Lukianoff’s book would be a start.

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