Yesterday, over a comforting bowl of roast pork egg noodle soup, my sister and I had an interesting conversation about the recent, potentially discomforting University of Chicago letter to new students (written by John Ellison, the dean of students) about “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces.” The main thrust of the letter can be seen in this paragraph:
Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial and we do not condone the creation of intellectual safe spaces where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.
A debate that has been brewing for some time now as one can see from the overview well laid out by Scott Jaschik in the Inside Higher Ed article, a survey worthy of a read, with accounts of both critics and supporters of the debate. Even my local university publication, The Daily Pennsylvanian, reports and chimes in on the current debate of psychology, free speech, education, and human development. But in continuing this discussion, it is perhaps, helpful to refer back to an earlier accounting of the social phenomenon of ‘trigger warnings.’
“The Trouble with Teaching Rape Law” was the title of the article by Jeannie Suk Gersen in the New Yorker (Dec 2014) concerning the rising concern for words that trigger memories of traumatic experiences. Most likely not the earliest but one of the earlier articles considering the issue at hand. Suk Gersen describes the legitimate ‘phenomenon’ of a “second rape” that victims experienced in the courtroom reported as devastating in a 1991 book by Lee Madigan and Nancy Gamble. In September of the following year, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt of The Atlantic published an article titled, “The Coddling of the American Mind” taking the thrust that trigger warnings and safe spaces are doing more than ruining the higher eduction of America, such ‘coddling’ hurts the mental health of the next generation, the article’s point perhaps encapsulated in the two questions that it rhetorically asks:
What are we doing to our students if we encourage them to develop extra-thin skin in the years just before they leave the cocoon of adult protection and enter the workforce? Would they not be better prepared to flourish if we taught them to question their own emotional reactions, and to give people the benefit of the doubt?
And here’s another article for good measure assessing Ellison’s letter and trying to explain the use and mis-use of the terms “trigger warning” and “safe spaces” in the entire discussion. But as much as the details of the meaning of words, the policies and the how’s of education, and sensitivity to trauma and emotion are all important, I think David Brooks contributes a fresh perspective in the discussion.
Perhaps it is our loss of purpose, or a life mission, that has inconspicuously contributed to the emotional volatility and lack of mental grit in the younger generation. Of course, this is, again, not to deny the reality of people having experienced trauma, but it is very much true that the mental grit of the younger generation is, to put it mildly, different. David Brooks asks veteran college teachers and administrators, in an Op-ed column titled “Making Mental Toughness“, how students have changed over time, and the answer he quotes is this,”Today’s students are more accomplished than past generations, but they are also more emotionally fragile.” But the insightful point that he ends on is the point that much of this is due to people’s lack of life goals, goals beyond personal comfort and success, goals that are, quite frankly, bigger than oneself.
John R. Lewis may not have been intrinsically tough, but he was tough in the name of civil rights. Mother Teresa may not have been intrinsically steadfast, but she was steadfast in the name of God. The people around us may not be remorselessly gritty, but they can be that when it comes to protecting their loved ones, when it comes to some dream for their future self.
People are much stronger than they think they are when in pursuit of their telos, their purpose for living. As Nietzsche put it, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
In short, emotional fragility is not only caused by overprotective parenting. It’s also caused by anything that makes it harder for people to find their telos. It’s caused by the culture of modern psychology, which sometimes tries to talk about psychological traits in isolation from moral purposes. It’s caused by the ethos of the modern university, which in the name of “critical thinking” encourages students to be detached and corrosively skeptical. It’s caused by the status code of modern meritocracy, which encourages people to pursue success symbols that they don’t actually desire.
We are all fragile when we don’t know what our purpose is, when we haven’t thrown ourselves with abandon into a social role, when we haven’t committed ourselves to certain people, when we feel like a swimmer in an ocean with no edge.
If I may end with a bit of semi-introspection, Brooks’ insight is very instructive for myself as one in the position of educator and guide for younger folk. My tendency is to take out the whip (metaphorically) and try to create some grit through some old school suffering and discipline. But as tempting and easy as that may be, Brooks is convincing me to create a ‘telos’ for the younger folk, to offer a goal that is worthy of ‘throwing ourselves with abandon.’ A goal that is more than the prestigious college, secure well-paying job, the loving family, and the house in the suburbs (Perhaps the church has been dropping the ball by preaching morality without mission). For the strengthening of the modern mind, it may very well be that what this young generation needs is to find a purpose, a purpose not created from within but one that comes from without.