Monday, August 17, 2015

Liberal Education & Bad Pop Psychology

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt have an excellent piece in The Atlantic: “The Coddling of the American Mind”.  Lukianoff is a constitutional lawyer and Haidt is a social psychologist.  Their topic is the recent movement on college campuses to create an environment where no one can be offended, let alone traumatized, by anything that anyone says.  They provide a lot of familiar examples, but perhaps the most telling concerns the efforts of some law students to suppress the teaching a rape law in their classes.  After all, someone in the room might have been subject to this terrible crime and might well be traumatized by the discussion. 
The current movement is largely about emotional well-being. More than the last, it presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into “safe spaces” where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable. And more than the last, this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally. You might call this impulse vindictive protectiveness. It is creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.
The authors make some traditional arguments on behalf of a liberal education and critical thinking‑they mention the Socratic Method, for example‑but their primary argument seems to be based on cognitive psychology. 
For millennia, philosophers have understood that we don’t see life as it is; we see a version distorted by our hopes, fears, and other attachments. The Buddha said, “Our life is the creation of our mind.” Marcus Aurelius said, “Life itself is but what you deem it.” The quest for wisdom in many traditions begins with this insight. Early Buddhists and the Stoics, for example, developed practices for reducing attachments, thinking more clearly, and finding release from the emotional torments of normal mental life.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is a modern embodiment of this ancient wisdom. It is the most extensively studied nonpharmaceutical treatment of mental illness, and is used widely to treat depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and addiction. It can even be of help to schizophrenics. No other form of psychotherapy has been shown to work for a broader range of problems.
Having practiced Zen Buddhist meditation for many years, I can testify that it indeed works like cognitive psychology as they describe it.  It also just plain works.  The strategy is to avoid avoiding.  When someone suffering from distress and trauma tries to avoid the source of the trauma, it only makes it stronger.  Gentle persistent exposure (or mindfulness, as current Buddhist language has it) is the best way to work through the human problems.  Norman Fisher’s Training in Compassion: Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong is an excellent introduction to the Zen method.  In a nutshell, it teaches you to move toward rather than away from what is causing pain. 
So I am, as it were, primed to receive the message that Lukianoff and Haidt deliver.  I can’t speak about cognitive psychology but I know something about liberal education.  I suspect that it is impossible without trauma.  Socrates only became Socrates when he experienced a moment of deep crisis.  The philosophical method he was practicing (that of pre-Socratic science) brought him to a point of intellectual collapse.  Out of that trauma, he became the most influential personality in the history of philosophy.  His trauma is recorded in the Phaedo.  I don’t think he had another, but his students certainly did.  The story of their traumas is written throughout the Platonic corpus.  Aristotle must have had the same experience when broke away from Plato. 
I have had two such experiences.  One in my second year of college, when I realized that I was a conservative.  My friends thought I had been captured by aliens.  All the way through graduate school and into the early years of my teaching career, I rejected Darwinian explanations.  I thought they were inconsistent with Plato and Aristotle.  I still remember sitting on my deck reading Larry Arnhart when I realized that this was not the case.  It was a traumatic moment.  Maybe two is enough for anyone. 
Liberal education is inseparable from trauma and discomfort.  If the universities try to isolate students from these, it is not only bad pop psychology, it is a deep betrayal of their mission. 


  1. Your classes provided this kind of gentle, persistent exposure to traumatic ideas to students like me who grew up as Christians and viewed Darwin suspiciously. I think that this is why they were both the most memorable and the most enjoyable classes I had. Going to class often felt like walking a tightrope - and the moments I remember best were the most upsetting at the time. I am very grateful that I had the opportunity to be traumatized and very sorry that others students will be denied similar experiences.

  2. Thank you very much for the endorsement, Miranda. I thoroughly enjoyed having you in class.