Academic Freedom

Mental Health or Faculty Autonomy?

by profzucker

In their book, The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt argue that certain widespread practices in institutions of higher learning, such as the use of safe spaces, trigger warnings, and so on, are backfiring: instead of reducing anxiety for learners, they’re increasing it. Consequently, if you want to improve students’ mental health, you should not use trigger warnings, safe spaces, or other such protective initiatives.

Against this, Stanley Fish replies that Lukianoff and Haidt may be right as far as they go, but that their advice is beside the point. It’s not the job of professors to remedy or treat their students’ psychological ailments; rather, a professor’s job is to follow the norms of academic discourse: “it can’t be the purpose of college and university life either to toughen up student sensibilities or to be solicitous of them. It’s the purpose of college and university life to draw students into an ongoing conversation presided over by academic, not psychological, protocols” (Fish, The First, 79-80).

Unfortunately, it’s Fish who misses the point, because his position is subject to a powerful objection: if you want to draw students into an ongoing conversation presided over by academic protocols, then the students have to feel comfortable entering into that conversation! But unless you have trigger warnings, safe spaces, etc., then many students who have valuable contributions will feel too nervous to contribute.

Long story short, there’s a case that safe spaces, trigger warnings, etc., are proper academic protocols. Just as professors should follow pedagogical best practices to improve student learning, they should follow best psychological practices to improve student learning.

There’s a problem with this reply, though, and it’s not just that it may (as Lukianoff and Haidt think) rest on empirically false psychology. It’s that its logic leads to a conflict with faculty autonomy.

Let me explain. Imagine you buy the claim that students can’t properly learn unless appropriately protective mental health measures are taken. Well, then, you’ll want to pressure faculty to take those measures. After all, teaching is arguably the most important thing faculty do, and if you think that, you’ll want them to do their jobs well.

However, many faculty won’t be good at following psychological best practices, as they have no training with it. It would be more helpful to them to have psychologically informed instructional designers who can tutor them on how best to make use of the right psychological approaches. Once you cross this threshold, though, there will be pressure to have, not just training, but minders – people who know, from a psychological perspective, what professors should do to teach their students well. And once that happens, well, that will put some pretty big, new constraints on how faculty teach.

Now of course, all this reasoning up until now is slippery slope reasoning, and as a result it’s subject to some responses. I’ll give two.

First, we already have trigger warnings and safe spaces, and we don’t have psychological minders. So, the prediction is already falsified.

Second, there’s already lots of information out there about pedagogical best practices, and they haven’t come with intrusions on faculty autonomy. No one is forcing you to rewrite your syllabus with growth mindset language.

Against the first objection, all I can say is: wait. When faculty members are mobbed for writing articles that lots of other faculty or students think are problematic, such gang-ups are inevitably accompanied by claims like, “anyone who writes such racist things shouldn’t be trusted with students of color” or “I wouldn’t feel safe taking a class from this professor.” So, it’s already out there that having the wrong views makes you a bad teacher; it’s not a huge leap from there to saying that not having trigger warnings, etc., also makes you a bad teacher.  

In response to the second objection, I say: look where universities’ priorities are. There’s not a huge movement from within universities to strengthen assessment. By contrast, there is big momentum, coming from within universities, to push equity and diversity programs. That is, it’s easy for people to think, “eh, she could be using better pedagogy, but I’m not going to make a capital issue of it”, and hard for people to think, “eh, she’s hurting students’ mental health, but that’s not a big deal.”

In other words, once we start thinking of classrooms as places that endanger mental health, we’ll face strong pressure to require professors to teach differently. Lukianoff and Haidt’s approach, then, is exactly right. If we can show that the alleged cures are actually the harms, then professors will have more freedom to teach how they want.


1 Comment

  1. Agreed

    Great post!


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