In this blog, Urbana Seminary Professor Mike McQueen discusses his reaction to a recent article in The Atlantic: It seems a couple of previously unused terms have broken into the academic vocabulary in the last year. In case you have missed them, “microaggression” and “trigger warnings” are now making their debut on college campuses across the country. Microaggressions are “small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless”. In their Atlantic Monthly article “The Coddling of the American Mind,” Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt cite transgressions seemingly innocuous phrases such as “Where were you born?” as being emotionally damaging to Asian-American students (anathema at Brandeis University), and “America is the land of opportunity” and “The most qualified person should get the job” (trouble at University of California). There are now whole lists of words and phrases at many universities that are frowned upon.
Trigger warnings are alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause a strong negative emotional response. Certain books must be approached with caution due to their content. Fitzgerald’s the Great Gatsby might evoke fears of misogyny and abuse; Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, racism.
Lukianoff and Haidt go on to point out that while the “politically correct” movement of the ‘90’s sought to limit speech to increase more diverse perspectives, the current movement is largely about emotional wellbeing. It sees collegians with extraordinarily fragile psyches and seeks to turn campuses into safe zones to shield students from words and ideas that might make them uncomfortable. And it also seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, charging them with insensitivity, aggression or worse.
Such vindictive protectiveness completely contradicts the Socratic teaching method which instructs students not just what to think, but how to think. This academic “coddling” poorly prepares them for intellectual engagement with people and ideas which might be contrary or wrong which professional life often requires. Lukianoff and Haidt go so far as to say that “the campus culture devoted to policing speech and punishing speakers is likely to engender patterns of thought (that) are surprisingly similar to those long identified…as causes of depression and anxiety.” Unintended consequences, anyone?
At Urbana Seminary, we do believe in a corpus of truth upon which students need to build their lives and ministries. But we also believe that students likewise need to be able to engage their culture without wilting intellectually or emotionally when confronted by the lies of the enemy. As my beloved old mentor, Vernon Grounds put it, we present “no unanchored liberalism, freedom to think without commitment… (and) no encrusted dogmatism, commitment without freedom to think. Here is a vibrant evangelicalism, commitment with freedom to think within the limits laid down in the Scripture.” Our desire is for our students to know the culture in which they live so well that they are able to present the truth of the Gospel in a winsome, clear headed way that bears good fruit for the King.
I encourage you to read the full Atlantic Monthly article, “Coddling of the American Mind” at http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/09/the-coddling-of-the-american-mind/399356/