In the gaze of the other

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“The Coddling of the American Mind” in the Atlantic

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I have taught college students to write, read and think for over 15 years now. Before that, I did the same for high school students. My job–teaching–particularly skills for college, and more importantly, life, impresses me as one of mind crafting. I teach students how to think, using the medium of the word. Others teach the same through other media, such as art, music, math or computers, to name a few.

Since writing starts with the word, that is where I start my classes each semester. I compare grammar to life. It starts with the word, which has an essence and a function, depending on its relationship to other words. I try to illustrate this by pointing to a student and defining the student as presumably human, male or female, but also in context of a classroom, a student, peer, son or daughter, just as a noun is a noun until it is placed next to another noun and then functions like an adjective.

It has always been a hit–until recently. In the last couple of years, I hesitate to use the example because once I get past presuming a student is human, I get tangled up in words trying to be respectful of gender identification. I now find myself saying the person appears as this gender or that but may actually identify some other way…and then it gets complicated for me. I start thinking that maybe it is wrong to even presume a student represents as human, now with people going bionic by choice, according to an article I read this morning.

I am the last person to be the most sensitive in any situation. I am not a clod or a jerk (at least I don’t think so), but I can be absorbed in my own world, the material I am teaching and not notice the effect of my natural expressions. I sometimes use profanity to make a point. I reference all kinds of beliefs and politics and history, my class encompassing words and ideas. The constant running through my classes, lately, however, is my fear of others’ sensibilities. I am wary of the trap of my own words.

A true gift, the recognition of these fears in the Atlantic article entitled “The Coddling of the American Mind,” which is a thorough investigation of the temperament and tendencies of the American college student as well as some reasonable suggestions to change the trends toward litigation and censorship based on what the author identifies as distorted thinking often bordering on psychological disorders, including adapting sensitivities on behalf of other groups and identities.

The authors define and exemplify micro aggressions, catastrophizing and trigger warnings, topics, words and imagery taught in classrooms or presented in the world that trigger traumatic experiences personal, racial or historical. For example, students object to the mention of rape and rape cases in a law school class for the emotional triggers to some students’ traumatic experiences. This is merely one type of behavior that crowds the classroom’s content and censors speech.

However, as the authors assert, shielding students from offense runs counter to the exposure students should be getting to new ideas in school, including ones that offend. Schools are not bubbles but training grounds for the world beyond school, as world inhabitants, of which there is much that offends.

Attempts to shield students from words, ideas, and people that might cause them emotional discomfort are bad for the students. They are bad for the workplace, which will be mired in unending litigation if student expectations of safety are carried forward. And they are bad for American democracy, which is already paralyzed by worsening partisanship. When the ideas, values, and speech of the other side are seen not just as wrong but as willfully aggressive toward innocent victims, it is hard to imagine the kind of mutual respect, negotiation, and compromise that are needed to make politics a positive-sum game.

The article is a fair treatment of the causes and effects of this educational and social phenomenon, including a recommended list of twelve distortions (reproduced below) to identify and teach in the classroom based on cognitive therapy practices that help individuals focus on a reading of reality that is not merely emotional. I know my falll class opener may start with this article for discussion.

 Common Cognitive Distortions
A partial list from Robert L. Leahy, Stephen J. F. Holland, and Lata K. McGinn’s Treatment Plans and Interventions for Depression and Anxiety Disorders (2012).
1. Mind reading. You assume that you know what people think without having sufficient evidence of their thoughts. “He thinks I’m a loser.”
2. Fortune-telling. You predict the future negatively: things will get worse, or there is danger ahead. “I’ll fail that exam,” or “I won’t get the job.”
3. Catastrophizing.You believe that what has happened or will happen will be so awful and unbearable that you won’t be able to stand it. “It would be terrible if I failed.”
4. Labeling. You assign global negative traits to yourself and others. “I’m undesirable,” or “He’s a rotten person.”
5. Discounting positives. You claim that the positive things you or others do are trivial. “That’s what wives are supposed to do—so it doesn’t count when she’s nice to me,” or “Those successes were easy, so they don’t matter.”
6. Negative filtering. You focus almost exclusively on the negatives and seldom notice the positives. “Look at all of the people who don’t like me.”
7. Overgeneralizing. You perceive a global pattern of negatives on the basis of a single incident. “This generally happens to me. I seem to fail at a lot of things.”
8. Dichotomous thinking. You view events or people in all-or-nothing terms. “I get rejected by everyone,” or “It was a complete waste of time.”
9. Blaming. You focus on the other person as the source of your negative feelings, and you refuse to take responsibility for changing yourself. “She’s to blame for the way I feel now,” or “My parents caused all my problems.”
10. What if? You keep asking a series of questions about “what if” something happens, and you fail to be satisfied with any of the answers. “Yeah, but what if I get anxious?,” or “What if I can’t catch my breath?”
11. Emotional reasoning. You let your feelings guide your interpretation of reality. “I feel depressed; therefore, my marriage is not working out.”
12. Inability to disconfirm. You reject any evidence or arguments that might contradict your negative thoughts. For example, when you have the thought I’m unlovable, you reject as irrelevant any evidence that people like you. Consequently, your thought cannot be refuted. “That’s not the real issue. There are deeper problems. There are other factors.”

One thought on ““The Coddling of the American Mind” in the Atlantic

  1. Pingback: Babies in College | In the gaze of the other

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