Distorted thinking at our universities

Recently, at the Pope Center for Higher Education website (www.popecenter.org) I found a scholarly article published in the Atlantic magazine (Link below) that describes how institutional warnings promoted at American universities damage student mental health on campuses. Authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt expose a scary, pathological social movement.

They write, “…this increased focus on ‘microaggressions’ coupled with the endorsement of emotional reasoning is a formula for a constant state of outrage, even toward well-meaning speakers trying to engage in genuine discussion.”

Certain words and phrases presumed to be emotionally offensive are being purged from student minds. Some of this speech is seen as a form of violence; especially toward women. Ironically, “vindictive protectiveness”—punishing anyone who interferes with university aims—becomes acceptable. This can justify “a hostile, perhaps even violent, response,” according to the authors.

This overly protective environment; “the cocoon of adult protection,” leads to children being unable to face the real world. The authors call this “mental filtering”—the process of dwelling on a negative detail, thus the perception that the whole situation is negative. Applied to campus life this allows what they call “simpleminded demonization.”

For example, students and faculty in 2014 applied this “cognitive distortion” to campus speakers who they assumed spoke of ideas that offended them. These simpleminded people refused to recognize the speakers in what they called the “disinvitation season” and rudely demonized them if they showed up. The Foundation of Individual Rights in Education identified at least 240 such campaigns; most active since 2009.

Lukianoff and Haidt note that “teaching students that their emotions can be used effectively as weapons (will) nurture a kind of hypersensitivity (that) will lead them into countless drawn-out conflicts in college and beyond.” But that doesn’t matter to cloistered (and also largely protected from the outside world) college faculty and administrators. They press on promoting cognitive disorders in college students.

College faculty, department heads, and deans’ work feverishly to protect students with anxiety disorders to avoid the things they fear. Authors believe this is a dangerously misguided emotional well-being psychological movement. Campus activists expect to protect students from psychological harm by banning arbitrarily concocted lists of offensive statements about gender, race, history, politics and an increasing lexicon of unacceptable language. Campuses become “safe spaces” for the presumed mentally vulnerable.

The federal government has joined what one observer called the “offendedness sweepstakes.” In 2013 the departments of Justice and Education broadened the definition of sexual harassment to: verbal conduct that is “unwelcome”—a ridiculous, childishly subjective standard.

Emotional responses dominate campus discussions and debates—feelings rather than logic and reason guide the interpretation of reality.

Authors think it’s dangerous “to scholarship and quality of American universities.” In fact, it may actually cause depression and anxiety. It fosters pathological thinking—rather than teach students how to think, they are being taught what to think.

I believe that this distorted thinking also poses a societal danger. People who reason and vote by irrational emotion are a threat to our constitutional republic. There are other dangers to pathological mentalities.

Although it may not be the direct cause of the rising rates of mental illness in young adults, there may be a correlation. A 2014 survey found that 54 percent of college students “felt overwhelming anxiety” in the past 12 months (up 5 points from five years ago).

I don’t think it’s too far a stretch to suggest some connection between cognitive distortion taught in our schools and what seems to be increasing inexplicable violence committed by mentally disturbed young men in American society.

In my opinion, these pathological, modern witch-hunts for language that assumes to offend individual sensibilities in our educational institutions threaten the mental health of our society.




About R. E. Smith Jr.

Mr. Smith writes essays and commentary on politics, American history, environment, higher education and culture. He's been published in print media and at blog sites for about 25 years. Smith's formal education includes B.S. and M.S. degrees from the State University of New York and Syracuse University. He has earned a 21-credit hour Certificate in Professional Writing from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. Training/work experience: NYS Ranger School; U. S. Army, Corp of Engineers; soil scientist and forester with USDA; Assoc. Professor at SUNY; real estate agent; small business owner.
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