Wednesday, August 29, 2018

The American Mind on Therapy

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt have a new book, The Coddling of the American Mind. Obviously, the title echoes Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind.

Both books focus on what is taught or not taught in American universities. However well Bloom’s book laid bare the problem some three decades ago, it seems perfectly clear that the situation has worsened.

Niall Ferguson reviews the Lukianoff/Haidt book for the Times of London. He describes the current destitution of American education thusly:

Trigger warnings. Safe spaces. Preferred pronouns. Checked privileges. If you work at an American university these days, you have to tread as if on eggshells, if not land mines. One ill-judged microaggression is all it takes to be accused of racism or sexism, transphobia or Islamophobia, harassment or full-blown rape. Often, such accusations lead to investigations that are the antithesis of due process, with the transgressor deemed guilty until proved innocent.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the impetus behind this “coddling” lies in therapy. Students are no longer required to learn anything. They are taught to have high self-esteem. They think the world of themselves. They are brimming with confidence, the kind you find in fanatics. They have high self-esteem and know nothing. It’s a toxic mix.

Thanks to the miracle of grade inflation they receive very high grades. And they watch politicians debate issues, they read the news, they see what is going on in the world… and they feel completely lost. They are incapable of understanding what is happening around them… but they feel perfectly confident in their own beliefs.

They denounce bigotry because it’s all they know how to do.

Today’s students feel the right feelings, but do not know how to think. They believe that their minds must be purified of all bigotries, so they spend their time policing the thought of their fellow students and especially their teachers.

They have been brought up to be basket cases, filled with inchoate emotions that they do not understand. They do not know what to do with their feelings except to vent and rant. Incapable of articulating a political agenda, incompetent at debating political issues, they seek to protect themselves against real discussion. In many ways their current heroine is the intellectually challenged Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a know nothing political candidate who was granted high grades at Boston University.

Ferguson sees today’s educational system as a religious cult. Since therapy, as practiced in most places, is nothing more than secularized religion-- a spiritual experience for unbelievers-- he is certainly correct.

What we see today is more like a religious cult than a political moment. Devotees insist on using the pronouns “they” or the made-up “zhe” for students who regard “he” or “she” as “cis-heteronormative”. They like to congregate in “safe spaces” where they can take refuge from ideas they find uncongenial. (The original safe space, at Brown University in 2015, “was equipped with cookies, colouring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets, and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members purportedly trained to deal with trauma”. Cult members glory in infantilising themselves.)

They are in touch with their inner children. They do not have the adult capacity to function within the adult world on the adult world’s terms. Or better, they are surrounded by fellow students who cannot do the work and who are lost. Rather than get an education themselves, they empathize with those who are less capable and rush off to safe spaces.

Interestingly, Ferguson explains that when he arrived on America’s shores sixteen years ago, it was not like this. How do you explain the rapid transformation? If I may offer my own analysis, I would say that it’s all about President Obama, about the transformation he affected.

In 2016 America repudiated the Obama agenda and the Democratic Party. The notion that the Messiah could have failed was unthinkable. Thus, those who believed in the great leader were obliged to go out to find someone to blame. If Obama failed, the reason had to be that he was too good for America. Or else, that America was too bigoted to appreciate his superhuman abilities. Or else, that America’s white supremacist mindset was too ingrained to allow him to succeed.

In happened in China during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. After Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward produced a famine in which some 35 million people starved to death, two members of the Politburo, Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping tried to displace Mao and to undo Maoist policies. Mao could not allow that to happen. By his reasoning the policy had failed because of counterrevolutionary elements, because of incompetent bureaucrats and because of reactionary cultural tendencies. He launched the Cultural Revolution to purge the bureaucracy, to murder over a million functionaries and to teach the rest the virtue of cleaning out pig sties.

Intellectual discussion and debate were closed down. Everyone was forced to read only one book, the Little Red Book of the sayings of Chairman Mao-- a replacement for the Analects of Confucius. All other books were proscribed. No one debated policy. Having been rendered ignorant, no one knew how to debate policy. Students set out to punish bureaucrats and teachers, to destroy the mandarinate.

Ferguson explains the similarity to the Chinese Cultural Revolution:

The campus cult also owes a debt to China’s Cultural Revolution. Like their predecessors, today’s American Red Guards like to humiliate academics who stand up to them — professors such as Nick Christakis, the master of Silliman College at Yale, whose wife dared to defend Halloween costumes from the charge of cultural appropriation, and Bret Weinstein, the biology professor at Evergreen who opposed a “day of absence” that required white students and faculty to vacate the college’s premises for a day.

I highly recommend watching the videos of these struggle sessions. The students scream hysterically at their incredulous victim, refusing to let him speak, or sinisterly snapping their fingers to indicate their disapproval.

Lukianoff and Haidt analyze the problem cogently. Among other causes, they cite the therapy-induced cult to feeling. If I feel it, it’s true. Certainly, it’s true that I feel what I feel. It’s the basis for today’s therapy culture. In the world of identity politics, this says that being a member of one or another victim groups, I have feelings of being oppressed that you, if you do not belong to a victim group, will never understand. When I speak up or speak out my ideas express my feelings and must be judged only on the basis of who I am, of which group I belong to. You must not, under pain of public humiliation, suggest or even whisper that my ideas or yours or anyone else’s should be judged objectively, as a function of their logic or cogency. And they must certainly not be judged on the basis of the results of their policies. If Mao’s policies produced a massive famine and mass starvation, we must not hold him accountable. We must not judge his communist vision ill for the results produced. We must punish all of those who failed to implement the ideas correctly.

If the American mind were merely being coddled, there would be reason for some hope. As is, the situation seems more dire than even Lukianoff and Haidt imagine.


Dan Patterson said...

A violent conflict is brewing; the differences between the two major camps are far too great and there is no common language, experience, or philosophy to bridge the chasm. Added is the insanity of a well-nourished young population largely devoid of personal effort, not to mention sacrifice, to garner the laurels laid on their heads and the food that pads their buttocks. Theirs is a world of misunderstanding, envy, jealousy, and rage followed by the remaining deficiencies noted by Dante. Of course all generations think something similar of those following, but has there been greater disparity?
The comment from Ferguson that today's education system is a cult is spot on. Try telling that to a cultist.

sestamibi said...

60+% of college students now female, and have been for some time now. Just sayin'. . .

Anonymous said...

Men are not going to college. They are not welcome, and they know it. But when disaster comes, the women will expect men to save them.

Sam L. said...

sestamibi, are you saying that some of the females used to be males? OH. I see now.

Anonymous said...

The Red Guard analogy is pretty good. I wonder how many of these Leftists know what happened to the Red Guard?

Stuart Schneiderman said...

If I had to guess, I'd say... zero. The same number knows what the Red Guard did to China.