I wrote about campus trigger warnings here. The subject has staying power, fascinatin’ some, amusing others, outraging even more and bringing out the inner hero in all too many.
There’s that article in The Atlantic by psychologist Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, head of the campus free speech group FIRE. They argue that sheltering kids from things they find scary is bad for their health and should be opposed on those grounds.
It is interesting, though I am not sure if it is wise, that the admirable Lukianoff has looked to diversify his free speech argument–usually argued on principle alone–by pushing it into the realm of science, leaning on cognitive whiz Haidt to frame the issue in scientific terms.
Maybe, though I am always leery in these slippery, value-laden areas of the social sciences to lean too hard on science. There was also that recent piece in Vice that told us, lo these many millennia, that parenting is not good for you. Who knew? But so says SCIENCE!
Maybe Haidt is right. An argument on science, though, is unlikely to win the day, except for some overly intellectualized readers of The Atlantic.
Now comes Megan McArdle, another writer I tend to agree with most of the time. She is correctly skeptical of the trigger phenomenon but adds a fillip that might take the argument in a different direction.
While sympathetic with the Lukianoff/Haidt “bad for your health” take, her argument takes up the issue of the shifting goals of higher education. You probably know the argument: in the good old days colleges built character and now they are all about getting a job. And that nowadays students are just consumers.
OK, maybe it was never so idyllic in the good old days but McCardle is doubtless correct when she writes that “cultural and economic shifts have pushed students toward behaving more like consumers in a straight commercial transaction, and less like people who were being inducted into a non-market institution.”
So they are looking as much for an enjoyable experience–on their terms, as consumers–than they are for enrichment, or character-building. Consumption not “induction”. And that that is not good, somehow.
That as well seems right to me. But what do I know? Question your instincts.
Haidt is one of those smarty-pants (like his pals Danny Kahneman and Steven Pinker) who knows full well that our first instincts are not always to be trusted. So maybe we should question the consensus that colleges are “supposed to” accomplish high-minded things. Who says?
Beware that word “supposed”, or at least try to remember to pinch yourself when you hear it. Here is how McCardle herself employs it:
A university education is supposed to accomplish two things: expose you to a wide variety of ideas and help you navigate through them; and turn you into an adult, which is to say, someone who can cope with people, and ideas, they don’t like.
That thinking just trips right off the tongue, don’t it? Fun to read, fun to say, fun to think.
But perhaps, to use a term that has itself jumped the shark, a consumer experience in one’s college years is not a bug but a feature. After all, as McCardle herself notes:
Mass education, and the rise of colleges as labor market gatekeepers, have transformed colleges from a place to be imbued with the intangible qualities of character and education that the elite wanted their children to have, and into a place where you go to buy a ticket to a good job.
We need critical thinkers in our culture for sure. But how many? Perhaps it is the very mass quality that McCardle points to that in an odd way legitimizes the consumer orientation of most (not all) higher education. Maybe we need to train more people to be consumers than we do critical thinkers. Maybe the development of higher education along consumer/credential lines is not an error but an adaptive strategy.