What happens to college students who are protected from speech they find offensive, disagree with or just don't like? Some experts believe that students' minds are being coddled and that so-called intellectual "safe spaces" and classroom "trigger warnings" do more harm than good.
The University of Chicago bucked a recent academic trend this fall by telling freshmen that they would not require professors to warn students ahead of time that some content may be offensive, sexist, racist or otherwise unpleasant. It comes after many schools have faced pressure from students who want such curriculum, speakers or content removed from classrooms and university academic spaces.
The consequences for mandating a more sanitized college intellectual experience could be students who are less resilient, according to Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education which tracks campus speech issues.
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"We are teaching students the habits of anxious and depressed people and wondering why we are seeing spikes in anxiety and depression in college students," said Lukianoff, who wrote about The Coddling of the American Mind in the Atlantic Monthly last year.
Lukianoff, an attorney, says that campus administrators and parents could be to blame. That's because of a general feeling that talking about issues such as sexual assault, suicide or race relations could "trigger" some kind of negative response in the student. Lukianoff disagrees.
"Triggers aren't linear," he said. "Someone who is a victim of a traumatic experience isn't necessarily going to be triggered by a telling of that experience."
The justification for avoiding discussion of personal trauma, may be to make students unable to handle tough situations. It has also forced some professors to avoid some topics completely.
Jeannie Suk Gersen has written in the New Yorker magazine that fellow professors at Harvard Law School are avoiding teaching of rape law because of complains from students that they feel uncomfortable talking about it. That in turn, may result in a generation of lawyers who are unable to either defend or prosecute such cases.
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"This has the negative consequences of having lawyers who don't know the law."
Some students also say they feel threatened by political speech with which they don't agree, such as the words "Trump 2016" chalked on campus sidewalks at Emory University, while others complained about other students with "biases" to the degree that campus administrators urged students at one university to call 911 to report "bias incidents."
Years ago, when investigating depression, psychologist Martin Seligman coined the term, "learned helplessness" to describe what happens when people view themselves as victims, according to Pamela Paresky, a psychologist and president of the Aspen Center for Human Development.
Paresky says its possible that feeling a lack of control is associated with both depression and anxiety, and some psychologists believe that "protecting" students from speech, ideas, and literature that is emotionally challenging will not only have the effect of weakening their later ability to participate effectively in society, but could increase depression and anxiety in students.
She cautioned that she's not aware of any scientific research on the subject.
"Rather than being intellectually safe spaces in which all offense is banned," Paresky said in an e-mail, "liberal arts colleges could be spaces in which it is safe for students and faculty to contend with, consider, and engage with people and ideas with whom they fundamentally disagree."
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