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Where Did Colleges Go Wrong?

From 'puppy days' to trigger warnings, higher ed needs a course correction.

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A few weeks ago, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and I coincidentally published separate articles in separate publications about distressing developments on college campuses, all reflecting deteriorating student mental health. I invited Jon, professor of ethical leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business, to chat with me about our mutual concerns. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

HEM: You coauthored a fabulous piece in The Atlantic, The Coddling of the American Mind, about how students are demanding protection from words and ideas that they don't like and why it's bad. I came into this arena with the groundbreaking article A Nation of Wimps in Psych Today in 2004 and have followed the growing psychological fragility of college students ever since, most recently this September with the article Crisis U. We both recognize that the critical thinking skills expected of education are the same habits of mind that are instilled by cognitive therapy and which help manage psychological distress. What does the huge rise of anxiety and depression on campuses tell us about what’s going on in college and maybe even the wider culture these days?

JH: Western society has transitioned from an honor culture to a dignity culture and now is shifting into a culture of victimhood. In the culture of honor, each person has to earn honor and, unable to tolerate a slight, takes action himself. The big advance in Western society was to let the law handle serious offenses and ignore the inevitable minor ones—what sociologists call the culture of dignity, which reigned in the 20th century. It allows diversity to flourish because different people can live near each other without killing each other. The past 20-30 years, however, has seen the rise of a victimhood culture, where you're hypersensitive to slights as in the honor culture, but you never take care of it yourself. You always appeal to a third party to punish for you. And here's the big concept—you become morally dependent. Young people are becoming morally dependent; they are also less able to solve problems on their own. An adult has always been there somewhere to protect them or punish for them. This attitude does not begin in college. Students have been raised to be morally dependent.

HEM: The shocking part is that colleges are abetting the infantilization of students. For example, they sponsor “puppy days” so that students can pet dogs to relieve the—oh horrors!—stress of exams. It sounds so innocuous but providing such Pooh Bear crib comforts is flat-out capitulation to weakness.

JH: There are three reasons why colleges are doing this. One is the increasing consumer mindset that sweeps through many institutions in market-based societies. There used to be different goods and virtues in institutions outside the market, such as the academy. The academy is now a market-based institution; you have to give the customer what he wants.

HEM: Do you feel that acutely as a professor?

JH: I don't have the trust and respect of my students as much as I did 20 years ago. On first meeting me, students address me using my first name rather than Professor, a sign of familiarity. A more important change is that universities live in terror of lawsuits and losing federal aid. The Obama administration's justice department very much buys into the victimhood culture—the idea that people are fragile and discrimination is so rampant and damaging that we must have zero tolerance toward it. What counts as sexual harassment no longer reflects what a reasonable person would agree is harassment. If any speech is unwelcome, a student can file charges, and every university must investigate the charge. All of us now live in fear that a single word, a single tweet, can suck us into a vortex of investigations and social media shame. Third is the sincere belief of the academic community in the culture of victimhood. Most professors are horrified by trigger warnings and microaggressions. But these things flourish in the identity studies departments, gender studies, race studies, and among any group charged with promoting diversity. These three forces are converging so that everybody's walking on eggshells, afraid of being sued or accused.

HEM: Is this happening across the board?

JH: It’s not yet happening at most big state schools. It's happening at most top schools that lean heavily left.

HEM: It’s happening at the University of Michigan, and that's a big state school.

JH: But that leans heavily left. So does Berkeley. It’s especially the smaller and very progressive liberal arts colleges, such as Wellesley, Vassar, Brandeis, Swarthmore—these schools are eating themselves up.

HEM: Are some first-tier schools literally making themselves into 10th-tier schools?

JH: No, because prestige follows its own logic. I'm hoping that as public disgust with the infantilizing schools rises, market forces will save us—enough parents will hesitate before applying to the crazy schools. Some schools will be able to differentiate themselves as havens of free inquiry. I have my hopes on the University of Chicago, which has issued a spectacular policy on freedom of speech, saying basically it is not the university’s job to take sides. Students can say whatever they want.

HEM: Among the disorders rising on college campuses is self-harm. Some people in charge believe it reflects acting out because students can’t articulate their distress. I reported that young people increasingly lack the ability to emotionally regulate themselves, yet they feel things intensely—beyond their ability to articulate. Earlier cohorts processed distress more internally. Acting out is truly regressive behavior. Are trigger warnings and safe havens preventing students from learning how to articulate their distress?

JH: A core idea is Nassim Taleb’s notion of anti-fragility: Certain things in this world are anti-fragile—they get tougher the more you bang them around. Bones are an example. If you protect your bones and don’t use them much, they’ll get so weak that they’ll break if you try walking. This is one of the biggest difficulties about sending humans to Mars. Children are anti-fragile, too. Throughout all of history, children have experienced setbacks, skinned knees, and fear. That’s how they expand their capacities. If we think of childhood as a long voyage, children now are like astronauts going to Mars. They spend years and years without gravity, so when they get to adulthood, they are fragile, rather than anti-fragile.

HEM: Because they’ve been deprived of the opportunities to get hurt. We’ve taken all the challenge out of it, in the mistaken assumption that our kids should be happy all the time. We see this world as dangerous, no longer as a welcoming place. Even the equipment in your kids’ playground is going to harm them. In A Nation of Wimps, I showed how taking all the lumps and bumps out of childhood creates psychological fragility. How did we get to the victim mindset a decade later? Is it just the trajectory of market-based societies?

JH: In part, yes. With rising prosperity, there’s a demographic transition. Families used to have many children, and they didn’t invest as much in each one. But as nations get wealthy and women get educated, birth rates plummet and each child is prized. This is happening all over the world.

HEM: Another thing that happens in the culture of affluence is that people overestimate the amount of control they have and feel compelled to exert control more, including over their kids. Do you think the University of Chicago’s declaration of free speech is enough to counter all of these really big forces?

JH: No. Until the federal government grants universities freedom from fear of lawsuits, not much can be done. But the problem is not exclusively with universities; it starts before students arrive on campus—in elementary school and at home.

HEM: One thing that has struck me is a huge judgmentalism among parents pushing them to overprotect their kids. Parents are afraid that if they don’t, they’ll be criticized by other parents or a neighbor. It’s a powerful moral force.

JH: That's what I hear, too. My kids are ages 5 and 9, so I’m in the middle of it. We need to have a moral countermovement. Psychologists could play a leading role in helping parents and schools think about what children really need, and how our well-intentioned efforts to protect are often counterproductive.

HEM: You said that the student concerns that lead them to condemn microaggressions or ask for trigger warnings keep them in a state of constant outrage. One thing we know is that crazy-seeming behavior tends to have a purpose. What is the value of staying in a state of outrage?

JH: Moral judgment is not about finding the truth; it is more about broadcasting the kind of person you are to people that you want to like you. You might call it moral posturing. Getting angry about microaggressions shows that you are championing victims. In a victimhood subculture, the only way to achieve status is to either be a victim or defend victims. It’s enfeebling. When victimhood becomes your identity you will be weak for the rest of your life. Marty Seligman has been talking about this for decades. This is a good way to make people learn helplessness.

HEM: For the past 13 years, since I began documenting the increasing psychological fragility of college students, I have been part of Bringing Theory to Practice, a largely academic group taking steps to counter high rates of distress by fostering academic and civic engagement on campuses. One thing they do is offer grants to schools to test innovative programs. What more can people be doing?

JH: We need to think about this on every level. Parents need to be encouraged to raise their kids with some independence and experiences that help them learn from setbacks. Kids need to learn how to address insults on their own. I would change the freshman reading list. If we really want students to learn how to get along with other people who hold diverse views, they should read Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People. And I would strongly discourage using first-year readings to focus on racism, sexism, and anticolonialism. A steady diet of such books draws students into the culture of victimhood and anger.

HEM: I like your idea of good old-fashioned debates. They force people to tolerate ideas they don't necessarily agree with and process a range of ways of thinking. I would arrange for every student to see the play Hamilton, or a film of it. A highlight of the drama is a debate between Jefferson and Hamilton articulating their radically differing views of human nature and government for the young country.

JH: There’s a basic tension between pursuing dynamism and decency. Societies differ on how much to focus on dynamism—encouraging innovation and creative destruction—and how much on decency, which means protecting people from the creative destruction, unemployment, and other problems of capitalism. This is the basis of the left/right divide over capitalism: The left usually focuses on decency, the right on dynamism. In talking to you, I'm suddenly realizing that we have the same issue in the college community. Focusing on decency—it’s called inclusivity—is valuable. But is that all we should do? Should we also focus on dynamism, encouraging students to think in new ways, to take risks, to say things that other people might not like?

HEM: One irony is that what universities think they’re doing, with the best of intentions, to make students feel included and safe doesn’t work and is in fact counterproductive. No one can cater to the range of sensitivities or experiences that make people feel discomfort sometimes. It's a sinkhole. Yale, to take one example, pays so much attention to the academic deficits of first-generation students that the kids wind up feeling they have no strengths. In fact they are often in better mental shape and have more resilience and coping skills just because they were not infantilized in childhood. Many endured serious hardships growing up.

JH: When I was growing up, multiculturalism was all the rage and you were supposed to learn about other cultures, and even wear clothing from other cultures. Today that's a microaggression: It’s called cultural appropriation. How are kids supposed to learn about other cultures if they can get their heads bitten off for saying a word in Spanish or for wearing and article of clothing associated with another culture?

HEM: Yes, experimentation is one of the great expressions of expanding minds. Switching topics slightly, the beauty of a program that inculcates good habits of mind, like CBT, is that it protects you whether stress is generated internally or externally. Without such mental skills, you perceive stress everywhere, which seems to be the case today among college students.

JH: Actual dangers and threats can be going down while anxiety and disability can be going up. People learn from feedback from experience, and a lot of that experience has to be negative. Fear and sadness and disappointment and frustration feel bad when they are happening but are essential for growth.