I think about education a lot, not only because I have kids, but also because my wife is a high school teacher, and I like to help her think up lessons. If I were a teacher, I would challenge my students to think really hard, to question what they have been told, and to go beyond the material and create new thoughts of their own based on what we discuss in class. My wife tells me that my level of instruction would suit some grad students, maybe, but not high school students, and presumably not undergrads either. That is dispiriting to me, but she would know better than I—she knows teens and young adults and intimately knows the educational system they are put through. Through her, I’m pretty aware that high school is not quite as I remembered it. Overall, it seems dumbed down compared to what I went through: loftier goals with lower expectations for achieving them.
I had figured that college was just the same as I remembered it—and thus would be very difficult for high school students to cope in, academically—but I am now not so sure about that. A few weeks ago, I read Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s Atlantic article “The Coddling of the American Mind.” It riled me up. I had seen Mr. Haidt sometime earlier discuss his thesis about the decline of thought on college campuses in favor of “safetyism” on Real Time with Bill Maher, and found it both compelling and dispiriting. I listened to one of his lectures on YouTube and thought about it quite for a while.
I went to Brandeis University—one of the schools mentioned in Lukianoff’s and Haidt’s article—in the 1990s. I remember that one of the main themes of my instruction there was that I should expect to be challenged and to confront new and potentially uncomfortable ideas. We, as a student body, we asked—explicitly—to learn about, discuss, and work through new ideas together. It wasn’t supposed to be easy. It was supposed to be difficult. Difficulty was the whole point. Open debate was how it worked. That was liberal arts scholarship—and I’m pretty sure college campuses were thought to be politically-correct, liberal romper rooms even then, so maybe even I got the watered-down version. Is the academic culture I came up in gone now, in favor of a focus on comfort and mollify action at the expense of debate and rigor?
Lately, I have wondered how it really is on college campuses. How much of this worry, put in me by some of the things I read and see, is about someone else’s hysteria about changing cultural and social norms? Are the stories about wokeness, safe spaces, trigger warnings, microaggressions, and call-out culture that I have seen on the Internet and in The New York Times the norm, or exceptions to the norm? What kind of story would make it all the way to me? Only the exceptional ones, I think. Maybe freedom of thought at college campus isn’t as constrained as I have been led to believe. I suppose I will find out when I explore this issue further, or years down the line when my kids are ready to look for the colleges they will attend.