The changing of the Allegheny mind

Why debate is essential to a healthy campus climate

Julius Hübner/Wikimedia Commons
There is something amiss on American campuses, and two books aim to shed light on it: Allan Bloom’s 1987 book “The Closing of the American Mind,” and John Haidt and Greg Lukionoff’s forthcoming book “The Coddling of the American Mind,” due out this summer.

It is axiomatic to say the sense of community on American campuses is deteriorating. From the students who boycotted their required humanities course at Reed College in Oregon, to the riots that shut down a Charles Murray lecture at Middlebury College in Vermont, signs of failing campus climates have become so common they no longer warrant news coverage.

The trend of campuses becoming more polarized is distressing, and Allegheny College has not completely escaped it. This became salient this March when the administration and a third party organization administered a campus wide survey in an attempt to better understand the current shifting climate on campus.

Getting feedback from students, staff and faculty is a positive step forward, but in the meantime, there are observable trends from the past few years which can be examined, and two specifically which have had a negative effect on the campus climate.

The first is an increase in protesting.

There are several reasons why these past few years have seen more protests on campus. Some will say protesting is simply what students have always done, while others may attribute it to a more highly charged national climate. Both would be correct.

Consider the Women’s March; March for Life; March for Our Lives: there is no shortage of modern protests which appeal to college students’ highest aspirations. But one could also contend that a culture of protesting has become too ingrained at Allegheny, some of which are done to satisfy course requirements.

When the circumstances of one’s condition warrants a protest or demonstration, the movement is organic and spontaneous — the five years of demonstrations which resulted in the Allegheny board of trustees divesting from South Africa serves as an exemplar of this — but protesting for protesting’s sake is something to be wary of.

The act of protesting is not intrinsically good, which Bloom addresses in his book. Anger fuels protest and “anger, to sustain itself, requires an unshakable conviction that one is right.” This is what Bloom refers to as “The Closing” of the American mind. Students can become too strident in their beliefs — no matter how well intentioned they are — which shuts down debate and closes them off to new ideas.   

Students run the risk of no longer valuing difficult questions, but only valuing their  answers to them. In a culture of protest, one’s conviction and commitment to their cause becomes their highest virtue, which is not the posture one should have on a college campus.

“Commitment,” Bloom observed, “is the opposite of the disposition required for a university, which is suspension of commitment.” The university’s greatest value is in all the possibilities that come from honestly debating ideas with one another, suspending belief, and following reason and argument wherever they lead.

Protesting is antithetical to debating ideas. Indeed, while the ideals put forth by many American campus protests are good, the act of protesting can have a corrosive effect on a small community like Allegheny. Rather than engage fellow students in conversation it runs the risk of ostracizing them. Students should be cautioned to this reality.

The second rising trend is a sensitivity to differing opinions.

This trend is what Haidt and Lukianoff took on in their 2015 article in the Atlantic, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” which their forthcoming book will be based on.

It is often difficult to cut the right line when writing on this topic. Safe spaces, trigger warnings and microaggressions have become a source of laughter for many, while in reality, these are the result of a good-willed effort to make students’ learning experiences better. They are most often implemented with the best of intentions.

But as Haidt and Lukianoff contend in their article, this new protectiveness can have ill effects on students themselves. Taking a cue from cognitive behavioral therapy, the article unpacks an argument about the unintentional consequences of creating a culture of sensitivity.

“Teaching students to avoid giving unintentional offense is a worthy goal … but students should also be taught how to live in a world full of potential offenses,” the article contends.

This sensitivity, according to the article, has manifested itself with the popularity of emotional reasoning. When one feels uncomfortable by the position of one of his peers, he is taught to listen to that sensation. This makes students prone to mental habits that can make conflict inevitable — magnifying, anticipating conflict, taking things personally and out of context.

The article contends this is the opposite of critical thinking, which “requires grounding one’s beliefs in evidence rather than in emotion or desire, and learning how to search for and evaluate evidence that might contradict one’s initial hypothesis.”

This can be observed at Allegheny by the rise of sustained dialogue model discussions, at which participants are urged to use “I” statements based on personal experiences and not directly disagree with one another.

While building empathy with strategies such as this model advocates is a laudable goal, it can ultimately restrict the exchange of ideas and prevent students from fully understanding each other. It anticipates a fragility in students which does not exist.

To disagree is not to be uncivil, and experiences in the classroom have proven that genuine debate on polarizing topics can give rise to lasting friendships built on mutual respect. Everyone disagrees with everybody about something, and this has always been a reality. The world would be a boring place if all were in consensus, but since when did conversation about polarizing topics become so fraught with trepidation?

Taken together, these two trends are a dangerous formula for Allegheny’s campus climate. By protesting, students are claiming more certainty in what they know. Simultaneously, by fostering a culture of protectiveness students are talking with each other less. It is a recipe for a breakdown in mutual understanding, for polarization and makes impossible any continuity of thought.

These two books converge on their diagnosis, which is a return to debate, and Allegheny’s own history stands as an example to strive for.

The literary societies of the 19th century formed the core of the Allegheny experience for students. Students would assemble and debate topics ranging from the most serious and politically charged to the completely trivial. Debates about emancipation would be followed by debates over whether or not water could be more destructive than fire.

This is because debate is a good in and of itself, unlike protesting or hesitant structured dialogues.

When students in literary societies disagreed there was no breakdown in community, rather, as Bloom writes, “Their common concern for the good linked them; their disagreement about it proved they needed one another to understand it.”

This is how debate and public conversation builds community and heals campus climates. It gives students a mutual understanding of each other, and they become partners in their pursuit for answers no matter the disagreements that existed before.

“The real community of man, in the midst of all the self-contradictory simulacra of community, is the community of those who seek the truth, of the potential knowers, that is, in principle, of all men to the extent they desire to know,” writes Bloom.

Lukianoff and Haidt agree, and contend if one aims to heal campus climates  and build community, “A greater commitment to formal, public debate on campus” would further serve that goal.

Blooms book is long and dense, fit with chapters devoted to Nietzsche and Socrates. It  sings an ominous tone, and perhaps bits of it can be relegated to the shelf entitled “all down hill since 1960” as one reviewer remarked. But it offers an insight from the past that seems as relevant to the current period as ever before.

It is yet to be seen what will come of Lukianoff and Haidt’s book, but if the reception of their 2015 article is any indicator, it will be applauded by some and condemned by others. There will be no shortage of controversy or debate, but perhaps that is the point.

Public conversation about these topics is important. One only moves forward by debating difficult questions, and while the state of Allegheny’s climate is not as bad as any of the institutions that have garnered news coverage, if there is any doubt that the sense of community is not all that it might be, this is a conversation worth continuing.

Until that happens across the nation, campus critics will continue to publish books, because they will continue to be supplied with campuses worthy of  the criticism.