A major article in The Atlantic magazine argues that colleges are turning students into “pathological thinkers” who reason based on fallacies and emotions rather than sound logic.
The article, titled “The Coddling of the American Mind,” is co-written by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, the president of the civil liberties group Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
Traditionally, the two authors write, colleges have sought to train students in how to think rather than what to think. For instance, many college classes employ the Socratic method, where learning is encouraged through the use of incisive questions that force students to reconsider, defend, and if necessary change their own core beliefs and assumptions.
But now, the college environment, instead of encouraging logical and clear-headed reasoning, is instead increasingly encouraging a host of reasoning fallacies and cognitive disorders that are making them worse rather than better thinkers. One such disorder the authors point to is what they call “emotional reasoning:”
[David] Burns defines emotional reasoning as assuming “that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are: ‘I feel it, therefore it must be true.’ ” Leahy, Holland, and McGinn define it as letting “your feelings guide your interpretation of reality.” But, of course, subjective feelings are not always trustworthy guides; unrestrained, they can cause people to lash out at others who have done nothing wrong. Therapy often involves talking yourself down from the idea that each of your emotional responses represents something true or important. Emotional reasoning dominates many campus debates and discussions. 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. It is a demand that the speaker apologize or be punished by some authority for committing an offense.
The article lists numerous examples of universities suppressing anything that might disconcert the fragile psyches of students. One particularly egregious incident to be cited is the 2008 case of a Notre Dame student who was found guilty of racial harassment because a book he was reading, Notre Dame v. The Klan, featured a Klan rally on the cover; the book itself was actually anti-Klan in tone.
No matter how absurd people’s claims of offense may be, their arguments are growing harder and harder to criticize, as Haidt and Lukianoff observe that “blaming the victim” is being sharply cracked down upon as well. Virtually any claim of offense has, as a result, become “an unbeatable trump card.”
The infantilization of students is being directly abetted by the Obama administration, they say, as the Departments of Justice and Education have expanded their interpretation of sexual harassment to include any “unwelcome” remarks, rather than those that are objectively offensive in nature. Schools, fearing federal lawsuits, are being increasingly hostile to any speech and deeds that offend.
“Emotional reasoning” isn’t the only cognitive flaw the authors point out. Also criticized are the perfusion of “trigger warnings,” which encourage people to avoid rather than confront sources of trauma, and the rise of “microaggressions,” which they say encourages “catastrophizing,” where unimportant things are pointlessly escalated into matters of grave and even apocalyptic importance.
Lukianoff and Haidt’s team effort complements another Atlantic article published last week by Caitlin Flanagan, which described the college comedy circuit as one filled with organizers terrified of any comic who might cause offense to others. (RELATED: Modern College Students Can’t Laugh About Anything)
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