The fragile generation
Jonathan Haidt on the crisis of resilience on campus.
Worrying things have been happening on US campuses of late. While most of us are now familiar with the campus censors’ vocabulary of ‘trigger warnings’ and ‘microaggressions’, authoritarian student behaviour has recently taken an even more sinister turn. At Middlebury College, Vermont, protesting students assaulted an academic who tried to protect speaker Charles Murray, because they considered Murray racist. In video clips Yale students were shown screaming at a professor who dared to suggest that Halloween costumes should not be policed for offensiveness. And at Evergreen College, Washington, when a professor refused to participate in a day of absence in which white students and staff were asked to leave campus for a day to raise awareness about race and equity, a student mob occupied the college president’s office and the campus ended up on lockdown.
Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist and professor of ethical leadership at New York University Stern School of Business, has been studying this new wave of campus culture for years, and has written several essays on the rise in demand from university students for the protection of their emotional wellbeing from words or ideas they dislike. He talked to me about the crisis of fragility on US campuses.
‘I’m very concerned about a phenomenon called “concept creep” – which has been happening to a lot of psychological terms since the 1990s’, he says. ‘When a word like “violence” is allowed to creep so that it includes a lot of things that are not violence, then this causes a cascade of bad effects. It’s bad for the students themselves because they now perceive an idea that they dislike, or a speaker that they dislike, as having committed a much graver offence against themselves – which means that they will perceive more victimisation of themselves. And it’s also really bad for society because, as we are seeing in a spectacular way in the United States this year, when each side can point to rampant occurrences of what they see as violence by the other side, this then justifies acts of actual physical violence on their side. And there’s no obvious end to this mutual escalation process.’
He adds: ‘Everybody involved in education needs to be dampening down violence and the acceptance of violence. Telling students that words are violence is counterproductive to that effort.’
While incidents of protests getting out of hand and the censorious policies of student bodies get a lot of press, Haidt points out that these problems do not involve the vast majority of students. ‘The political problems are mostly confined to elite schools where people live together for four years. The problems don’t seem to be arising very much at community colleges or places where people leave the college community to go to work or to go home to their families. So the problems are localised, especially in intense communities that co-create a particular moral order’, he says.
‘I don’t know if most college students, even at those elite schools, are more fragile. What we do know is that rates of depression and anxiety [have been] sky-rocketing since around 2011.’
Haidt says these issues are not related to the millennial generation, but to those born after 1995, who grew up with social media as the norm. He calls them the i-gen (the internet generation). This tendency towards vulnerability has a number of causes, he says, but there are three main ones: social media, rising national polarisation, and the decline in unsupervised (adult-free) time during childhood.
‘The widespread introduction of social media on a potentially hourly basis occurs after around 2009 or 2010. The iPhone is introduced in 2007, Facebook opens itself to teenagers in 2006. So it takes a couple of years before most teenagers are on social media, but by 2008, 2009, a lot are… The problem seems mostly to involve social-media sites, where a teenager puts out something and then waits to sees what dozens or hundreds of people say about it. That seems to be the most damaging thing – it leads to more anxiety and insecurity.’
On polarisation, Haidt says that cross-partisan hatred has been increasing in the US since the early 1980s, ‘but it’s much more intense now… There is a much fiercer battle going on, and there is more motive to charge the other side with crimes and to claim victimhood for your side. I think this is part of the “speech is violence” movement. It is part of a rhetorical move to convict the other side of more serious crimes.’
The third major cause has been the ‘general decline in unsupervised time and the rise of adult protection’, says Haidt. In the US in the 1980s, there were two high-profile abductions and murders of two young boys, and parents panicked, he says. ‘Now there never was much of a risk of abduction from strangers… But America freaked out and overreacted and stopped letting kids out of their sight.’ By the 1990s there were pictures of missing children everywhere – ‘as if it was an epidemic, but it never was an epidemic’, he adds. At the same time, there was more of an emphasis on anti-bullying, as well as a decline in unsupervised play. ‘Studies of how kids spend their time show that up until the early 1980s kids spent a lot of time outside playing without adult supervision, but by the early 2000s that has almost disappeared, especially for younger kids’, he says.
Ironically, this over-protection of children may have done more harm than good. ‘The key psychological idea in understanding the rise in fragility is the idea of anti-fragility’, says Haidt. ‘It’s a word coined by Nassim Taleb and it describes systems that are the opposite of fragile. If something is fragile then you need to protect it, because if it breaks then it’s broken and it won’t get better. But there are some things that if you protect them, they won’t get better; the immune system is the classic example. If you protect your kids from germs and bacteria then the immune system can’t develop and your kids will be immunologically fragile… So protection can sometimes be harmful if there is an anti-fragile system at work.’ He continues:
‘Kids need conflict, insult, exclusion – they need to experience these things thousands of times when they’re young in order to develop into psychologically mature adults. Every adult has to learn to handle these things and not get upset, especially by minor instances. But in the name of protecting our children we have deprived them of the unsupervised time they need to learn how to navigate conflict among themselves. That is one of the main reasons why kids and even college students today find words, ideas and social situations more intolerable than those same words, ideas and situations would have been for previous generations of students.’
The heightened vulnerability of college students has had a chilling effect on discussion in the academic world, and Haidt sees this in his day-to-day experience on campus. ‘There is a rapidly spreading feeling that we are all walking on eggshells, both students and faculty. That we are now accountable, not for what we say, but for how anyone who hears it might take it. And if you have to speak, thinking about the worst reading that anyone could put on your words, that means you cannot be provocative, you cannot take risks, that means you will play it safe when you speak… This is what I’m seeing in my classes when topics related to race or gender come up – which we used to be able to talk about 10 years ago, but now it’s painful and there’s a lot of silence.’
This is disastrous for academic life, as Haidt points out: ‘A university cannot function if people will not put their ideas forth, will not contest ideas that they think are wrong, will not stand up for ideas that they think are right.’
He is keen to emphasise that this is not a right-left issue. ‘Several people on the left are noticing that college students are less effective politically as activists, as progressives, when they have this morality and this ethos with such heavy concept creep.’
Haidt believes there is a mental-health crisis on campus: ‘I have never seen such rapid increase in indicators of anxiety and depression as we have seen in the past few years’, he says. But his suggested approach is unlikely to find favour with student communities fond of Safe Spaces and therapeutic puppy-petting. ‘If you think about it as a mental-health crisis’, he explains, ‘then you might be tempted to say: we need more help, more counselling, more protection for those who are suffering from mental illness. But if you look at it that way you will miss the broader pattern, which is that for 20 to 30 years now, Americans have been systematically undermining the development of resilience or toughness of their children.’ Referencing the work of Lenore Skenazy, author of Free-range Kids, he concludes: ‘We have made our children too safe to succeed.’
In his forthcoming book Misguided Minds: How Three Bad Ideas Are Leading Young People, Universities, and Democracies Toward Failure, Haidt claims that certain ideas are impairing students’ chances of success. Those ideas being: your feelings are always right; what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker; and the world is divided into good people and bad people. ‘If we can teach those three ideas to college students’, he says, ‘we cannot guarantee they will fail, but we will minimise their odds at success’.
So how can we resolve the problem of vulnerability among young Americans? Haidt says part of the solution must begin in childhood and will require parents to give their children daily periods of ‘unsupervised time’. ‘We have to accept the fact that in that unsupervised time there will be name-calling, conflict and exclusion. And while it’s painful for parents to accept this, in the long-run it will give them children that are not suffering from such high rates of anxiety and depression.’
As for university students, Haidt references a recent quote from CNN commentator Van Jones. Jones said: ‘I don’t want you to be safe, ideologically.’ Building on this, he says universities should help students develop their ‘anti-fragility’.
‘We need to focus on preparing students to encounter intellectual and ideological diversity. We need to prepare them for civil disagreements. We need to be very mindful of mental illness, but otherwise need to minimise the role of adult supervision in their lives. College is a major opportunity, once they have left home, for them to develop anti-fragility and we must not deprive them of that learning opportunity.’
Jonathan Haidt is professor of ethical leadership at New York University and author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. His forthcoming book, Misguided Minds: How Three Bad Ideas Are Leading Young People, Universities, and Democracies Toward Failure, will be published by Penguin Press in July 2018.
Naomi Firsht is staff writer at spiked.
Picture by: Getty Images.