Last year was the year in which white liberal pundits ranted about PC Run Amok. Hua Hsu covered it very well in his piece for The New Yorker, “The Year of the Imaginary Student.” It’s a piece worth reading in its entirety. (Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan, has also written two good essays critiquing this discourse)
It was a rich year for even the casual observer of campus life. There were tales of students seeking “trigger warnings” before being exposed to potentially upsetting class materials. There was a new interest in “microaggressions,” or hurtful, everyday slights rarely uttered with the intention to offend. There was the Northwestern professor whose editorial against “sexual paranoia” resulted in students filing a Title IX suit against her, and the University of Missouri students who sought to bar journalists from a public plaza, which they claimed to be a “safe space” protected from the media. There were the students at Yale who demanded that a residential adviser be reprimanded after she prevailed upon them to be more open-minded about offensive Halloween costumes. And there was the item in the Oberlin school paper about sketchy Asian food, a piece that the New York Times described as evidence of the new “culture war.” Every week seemed to bring additional evidence for the emerging archetype of the hypersensitive college student, spotlighted at the beginning of the school year by the Atlantic, in a cover story about the “Coddling of the American Mind,” and just last weekend, in a Times Op-Ed about the “culture of victimhood.”
This phrase, the “coddling of the American Mind,” which The Atlantic gave such top billing to (a good financial decision. It got huge clicks), serves both older liberals, conservative on the non-political sense, who believe they are the arbiters of what kinds of dissent are good or bad, and actual conservatives who want to attack the whole notion of liberal learning as some kind of commie plot. But beyond the wisdom of giving fuel to the other side in the culture war, the attack on “coddling” has always struck me as aimed at the wrong target. Haidt and Lukianoff, authors of the Atlantic piece, write:
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.
So “coddling” is bad for students, they say, and it’s happening almost at epidemic rates on presumed liberal college campuses.
Here’s my rebuttal: If coddling is a problem, if we care about the need for young minds to be exposed to diverse, divergent, even offensive ideas, it’s not happening at, say, Oberlin and Wesleyan.
It’s happening at Wheaton College, where a professor is being fired for suggesting that Muslims and Christians might believe in the same god.
We can talk about the case of Larycia Hawkins along many lines, appropriately focusing on her freedom and her rights (few, legally, in this case), her bravery, and more. But just for a moment I’d like to cast the “coddling” rubric at Wheaton, a school that, by design, says that students may not encounter a single professor who deviates significantly from strict theological principles.
In fact, American evangelical colleges are built around the idea that student must be coddled, that the world is a corrupting Satanic space, that American culture is deviant, and college should be a protected enclave. Wheaton’s mandatory allegiance to its profession of faith is what real coddling looks like.
Wheaton is a lovely university. Its students are bright and its teachers dedicated. I know many Wheaton graduates. They tend to be smart, ecumenically minded, fascinating people, who in fact managed to avoid being coddled.
But for all I concede that many universities trend towards liberal cultural values, I know countless conservative professors with great careers, great comfort in their institutions, and the protected ability to speak freely about their beliefs.
At Wheaton, you will not find a single professor or student who can dissent from the profession of faith in public, as they’ll be expelled.
Now that’s coddling.