This article is continuing analysis of the Atlantic’s article, Coddling of the American Mind written by authors Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff . The authors believe that ‘political correctness’, or reacting to ‘microaggressions’, is damaging students’ intellectual and emotional wellbeing on university campuses. In an earlier article, I considered what microaggressions are and some of the unsaid assumptions and attitudes of the authors as well as taking into consideration their backgrounds.
In short, microaggressions are small and unconscious acts of oppression, such as erasure, using someone’s identity (sexuality, gender, race) as an insult, assimilation as a compliment, and assuming badness or deviance as a result of someone’s identity. Here, I want to consider more of Haidt and Lukianoff’s content, beginning with their concern:
“What exactly are students learning when they spend four years or more in a community that polices unintentional slights, places warning labels on works of classic literature, and in many other ways conveys the sense that words can be forms of violence that require strict control by campus authorities, who are expected to act as both protectors and prosecutors?”
I’ve already noted their victimising, legal vocabulary – ‘polices’, ‘prosecutors’, ‘strict control’, ‘authorities’, but it is worth bearing in mind. In fact, American college campuses are surprisingly lax in their response to problems around race and sexual assault. Sexual assault is common on college campuses and misogynistic language is rife, yet policies, discussions, and ‘messages’ around dealing with rape and sexual assault properly are lacking.
Likewise, there are examples of students who have not faced consequences aside from criticism and discussion after chanting actively racist slurs on film, and there are a great many incidents of verbal or physical racism with no real consequences to the perpetrator (although, as the last link shows, there are also cases that do have real consequences, such as court cases).
Essentially, it’s difficult to believe that whilst overt cases of aggression are not being dealt with effectively, college campuses are somehow ‘policing’ microaggressions. In fact, the authors later go on to give an example of pro-‘trigger warning’ policy that was “subsequently retracted in the face of faculty pushback”, which does not suggest ‘policing’ or ‘victims’, but people who were listened to.
Haidt and Lukianoff’s lamentation that words can be treated as a “form of violence” is also somewhat problematic. They state it as though words and actions are completely separate. For example, by saying “You don’t look like a lesbian” as a compliment, you are performing the act of reducing the status of lesbians.
There are other ways that words perform actions, such as “I now pronounce you X and X” being the act of marriage, and “Sold” being the act of ending an auction. In fact, the part of the brain that responds to social pain (e.g. social insults) is the same circuitry of the brain that responds to physical pain. Additionally, words can be worse, as the damage of psychological abuse equals or outweighs the damage of physical abuse. So whilst words are clearly not the same as physical violence, that doesn’t mean they can’t be violent.
Now, let’s move on to another point they make: “Students seem to be reporting more emotional crises; many seem fragile”. These statements are curious. Firstly, somebody with a mental health or wellbeing ‘crisis’ is at risk of significantly harming themselves or others.
Most people, most of the time, are not in a state of ‘crisis’, nor would most students claim to be. And the problem is framed as the inherent fragility of the students, rather than emotional distress being a rational response to the way things are at the moment. They hedge this with “We do not mean to imply simple causation, but…” and then go on to do essentially that.
There is no mention of the fact that American college prices are utterly extortionate, and unemployment high in the young. America has been at war for most of students’ lives. Privacy is now essentially nonexistent, people’s very bodies are becoming objects as women and men are increasingly exposed to unnatural and unrealistic ideals. Lives are doctored through social media, so everyone else looks like they’re doing great while the gap between the haves and the have-nots in America is bigger than ever. More people are going to university, making it more competitive, yet job prospects are poor. This wasn’t always the case with university degrees.
Indeed, the two well-off men who wrote this article forgot, or just didn’t know, that the biggest predictor of ‘mental health’ and wellbeing problems in any society is its socioeconomic inequality.
That’s right, Socioeconomic inequality, and America does not do well on that front. On top of this, socioeconomic inequality is directly threatening university students. It seems staggering, if not downright insulting, that anyone could claim in light of this that students’ suffering is primarily due to their own faulty thinking patterns and oversensitivity to ‘triggers’.
Regarding ‘triggering’, the phrase ‘trigger warning’ can indeed be used thoughtlessly, or overmuch. Pre-discussions about potentially upsetting content, however, aren’t unreasonable. We often have these in my doctorate; it teaches us to trust and understand our rational and emotional responses together, wisely.
It also makes us realise things that weren’t a problem for us might still be a problem for someone else – the ‘social learning’ of which Haidt and Lukianoff warn is not learning to fear what others fear, but learning how to empathise with others who are bothered by things that we aren’t. Finally, it facilitates learning, because animals physically can’t learn when overly stressed and anxious.
They say of this: “However, there is a deeper problem with trigger warnings. According to the most-basic tenets of psychology, the very idea of helping people with anxiety disorders avoid the things they fear is misguided.” They appear to use one particular branch of psychological therapy to represent both their argument, and psychology as a whole.
It is difficult to provide an semi-objective reply to authors who have suggested that microaggressions based on societal oppression and ‘anxiety disorders’ are the same thing. It’s a struggle to understand quite how the cognitive leap from one to the other occurred.
The Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) data to which they refer is based on samples of people who have clinical diagnoses of anxiety disorders. The most ‘basic’ tenets of cognitive behaviour psychology suggest that, in people with anxiety disorders, exposing themselves to things they fear will habituate them, so long as this exposure doesn’t result in a negative outcome like a poisonous spider bite or falling off a high ledge.
CBT is effective for anxiety disorders not just because it exposes people to unpleasant thoughts and situations. It also provides through learned experience for individuals to see their fears aren’t as bad as they first thought. However, if your so-called ‘distortions’ are proved true through experience, then you are unlikely to be ‘cured’ as Haidt and Lukianoff suggest. This is why behavioural experiments must be chosen carefully – not to ‘fix’ a positive outcome, but to test reasonable situations. Indeed, Martin Seligman’s theory of learned helplessness suggests that the more you are exposed to negative stimuli over which you have no control, the more likely you are to get depression.
Microaggressions are rooted in real societal inequality. They cause a complex range of emotions, from anger, shame, confusion, self-consciousness, and perhaps fear if the person microaggressing seems threatening. The point is, there is an extraordinary gap between CBT for anxiety disorders, and calling people out on societally oppressive actions and comments.
Now, some people who ask for certain things (e.g. rape not to be included on an exam paper) may have PTSD or an anxiety disorder. However, that is a separate issue to ‘microaggressions’ as a whole, and should be dealt with on a purely individual basis – though I don’t see the problem in at least asking about individual support.
Additionally, we can make the argument there are some ideas we would rather people not be habituated to such as violence, hardcore porn or constant absorption in technology for example. Perhaps society-wide habituation is simply what we call ‘the norm’. In the case of microaggressions, is habituation for the people oppressed by societal power dynamics really what we want? There is a statement about calling people up on microaggressions which has almost become proverbial:
“If you step on my foot, you need to get off my foot. If you step on my foot without meaning to, you need to get off my foot. If you step on my foot without realising it, you need to get off my foot.”
The last thing we should be doing is habituating people to having their foot stepped on. But this seems to be what Haidt and Lukianoff support by saying: “What are we doing to our students if we encourage them to develop extra-thin skin in the years just before they leave the cocoon of adult protection and enter the workforce? Would they not be better prepared to flourish if we taught them to question their own emotional reactions, and to give people the benefit of the doubt?”.
People from oppressed groups don’t suddenly hit university and therefore enter a “cocoon of adult protection” where discrimination no longer exists. They are, in fact, consistently taught to question their own emotional reactions to microaggressions, and to give people the benefit of the doubt, their entire lives. An example is women being harassed – ‘boys will be boys’, he ‘didn’t mean anything by it’, or the ever-present ‘it was a compliment’. People don’t need more of this.
Of course banning books like Huckleberry Finn isn’t appropriate. Treating such books, concepts and ideas with context, consideration and respect is appropriate. Demonising people based on their ignorant comments is an understandably contentious matter; there are unresolved arguments regarding “letting people learn” versus “when can we stop catering to the privileged”. However, the middlespace between intellectual freedom and respect is still being hashed out. And people who have systematically been ignored and oppressed are angry. They have every right to be.
In their deep analysis of how this ‘situation’ came about, Haidt and Lukianoff fail to see that oppression and microaggressions may be becoming more prevalent discussions points on college campuses simply because people from traditionally marginalised groups are now more likely to go to universities in the first place.
Haidt and Lukianoff suggest “students should also be taught how to live in a world full of potential offenses”, but don’t seem to consider that this is exactly what people of oppressed demographics are doing by being vocal about microaggressions. They are probably pretty good at navigating the ‘offence’-laden system actually, having got to university in the first place. Now they’re trying to change it.
Perhaps we don’t want to prepare students for ‘the workforce’ as it stands. There is still racism, sexism and homophobia, particularly at higher levels of employment. There is still a gender pay gap. People’s income is still more likely to match that of their parents’ income, their skin colour, and their gender, than that of their potential. Why would anyone suggest people take therapy to get used to this system, rather than trying to change it? There is a balance to be had with dealing with and accepting current circumstances, whilst also committing to make changes where possible.
Is it not more reasonable to suggest that during their university education, students start to think about the actions that their words perform, instead of pretending ‘academia’ and ‘intellectual debate’ happens in a vacuum? Might it not be academically important to consider the context of one’s ideas, where they come from and why, and moreover in whose interests these ideas work?
If these ideas are perceived to be dangerous, and “fear of federal investigations” and “fear of unreasonable investigation and sanction” are rife within institutions, then perhaps it is not the students who should be receiving therapy for their dysfunctional thinking patterns.
Perhaps, instead, we should deal with the cognitive distortions within the system.
Project-Based Learning for the Virtual Classroom
Project-based learning (PBL) may not be the first thing that teachers consider when planning for remote or hybrid lessons. However, with a little creativity and an organized approach, project-based learning can engage students in a way that may be lacking during typical virtual instruction. So what is it, exactly? PBL, simply put, is an approach to learning through exploration of a real-world problem or question. Ideally, students choose to investigate a problem or challenge that means something to them – something that impacts their daily lives. Then, through research, collaboration, and exploration, students gain a deeper understanding of the issue or challenge and how they can contribute to a solution. Even more important is the fact that, through project-based learning, students gain a better understanding of who they are as learners and critical thinkers. With being said, let’s look at how instructors can utilize PBL in virtual settings.
How to Organize PBL for Remote Learning
“Embrace the chaos of now” by asking students to discuss what is currently troubling them. When students have a vested interest in their classwork, they will obviously be more inclined to engage in the work and follow through on the assignment. Ask about challenges or problems they’ve been having, such as:
- What has been your biggest struggle with adapting to virtual/remote learning?
- What needs are not being met in this “new normal?”
- How has your daily routine changed since the start of the pandemic?
- What is a problem that you see your peers, neighbors, teachers, community struggling with?
After students have identified an issue or challenge that they personally recognize in their day-to-day lives, ask them to do a little preliminary brainstorming about the problem using a standard KWL chart. The KWL chart is an old favorite in the classroom for any sort of introduction to a new topic, concept, or unit. For project-based learning, the KWL chart provides students with a visual starting point and a trajectory for where their research is headed. The graphic organizer, for those who have not used it before acts as a simple t-chart to organize what students already know (K) about the topic, what they want (W) to know about the topic, and what they learn (L) throughout their research process. This simple visual aid acts as the foundation for critical thinking by visually, yet simply, organizing a student’s thoughts.
Next, you can help students with backward design or backward mapping by outlining objectives first. Again, project-based learning is all about allowing students to explore a challenge and identify a resolution or fix for the problem. In order to adequately lay out the groundwork, students must have a clear and definitive end goal. Therefore, in planning for success, teachers need to help students employ backward mapping strategies by beginning with something like a S.M.A.R.T. (Specific. Measurable. Attainable. Relevant. Timely.) goal—then working backward from there to achieve that goal.
Instructors can also utilize haptic engagement or hands–on learning by encouraging students to physically try out or experiment with their ideas. Teachers can model this experiential learning by choosing their own PBL to focus on while kids are working. Show students that, in order to truly solve a problem, people must occasionally get their hands dirty. It is also important for teachers to note that success stories are almost always trial and error—a sound solution will not come right away. By testing hypotheses and modifying approaches, students truly understand the value of hands–on, experiential learning. Not only are these demonstrations helpful for getting closer to a solution, but haptic engagement also teaches students about grit, perseverance, and strategies around error analysis.
Another great skill set that students may develop while participating in PBL classroom activities involves retrieval practice. Since students are focusing their work on one primary challenge, they are able to hone their focus and truly absorb new information as they learn. Teachers can help foster retrieval strategies with activities such as Cornell note-taking, peer teaching, and Socratic seminars, in which students take the lead in delivering information to one another.
Try some of these PBL strategies out in your next lesson, whether it be virtual or in-person, and see the results for yourself.
New Preschool Program in Oregon is a Model for the Nation—But Challenges Remain
In November 2020, voters in Multnomah County, home to the city of Portland, resoundingly approved the creation of a new, universal preschool program—a program that could serve as a model for desperately needed preschool and childcare investments for the entire country. All three- and four-year-olds in Multnomah county will be able to attend a free, year-round, universal, high quality preschool program that meets their needs as well as those of most families, providers and staff, and local businesses. Key elements include a wide range of choices for families as well as living wages and professional supports for providers and workers. The program is slated to be equitably funded by a local income tax on the highest income households.
Two big challenges remain: ensuring that families with “non-traditional” work schedules are included, and significantly increasing public investment in facilities to allow preschools to expand well beyond church basements and providers’ homes. Those working non-traditional hours are disproportionately low-income, women, people of color, and often “essential workers” without whom our society and economy would not function. Federal childcare initiatives must address the needs of families with such work schedules, or the families that most need public child care will be left out.
A Universal Model that Serves Diverse Needs
Universal preschool programs benefit all children and lead to better outcomes than means-tested programs for the most disadvantaged children. Means-tested programs such as Head Start seek to deliver services only to households with low incomes. Although means-tested programs “target the poor,” universal programs bring children and families from across the socioeconomic spectrum together, challenging ongoing race, ethnic and class segregation that erodes democracy. Universality also inspires broad support to maintain adequate funding. After fifty well-regarded years, Head Start is still available—but only for a fraction of eligible families, and even then, often only part-time and part-year. High quality preschool and child care is out of reach for the large majority of families who already face the high cost of housing, health care, and student debt with stagnating wages. Importantly, universal preschool is both a two-generation anti-poverty program and a powerful boost to economic development, because it returns $9.45 to the community for every dollar spent.
Families raising young children are diverse and need a wide range of options. Multnomah County’s new Preschool for All program will offer choices of:
- language and cultural contexts, including Afro-centric and other alternatives,
- types of setting, including family childcare providers, public schools and free-standing centers, and
- schedules, including school year and year-round, full and part-time, weekend days as well as week days, with up to 50 hours a week for families that need or want longer days
Children with disabilities will be included, facilitating earlier identification of health issues and treatment. Expulsions, now too common in preschool settings particularly for children of color, will be prohibited, requiring that the system provide supportive interventions to meet all children’s needs.
Fair Pay and Professional Support for Providers and Workers
Currently, U.S. family childcare providers, preschool teachers, and childcare workers earn poverty wages with few benefits and often cope with difficult working conditions. The result is high turnover; the loss of skilled, experienced and dedicated workers to jobs that better support their families; and damage to the quality of care. High quality child care depends on the ongoing relationships caregivers develop with families, children, and co-workers.
Multnomah County’s new Preschool for All program will pay teachers comparably with kindergarten teachers, doubling their current salaries. The wage floor for assistant teachers and other classroom staff will be set at nearly $20 an hour when the program starts in Fall 2022, with pay levels adjusted to reward increasing skills, training and experience. Continuing professional development will be geared to the schedules of the low-income working parents who are over-represented among preschool workers. Should workers wish to join a union, employers will be required to remain neutral.
Funding universal high quality child care is within reach. Over the past 40 years, U.S. economic gains have been concentrated on an ever smaller group of the wealthy, while responsibility for paying for our infrastructure and public services has been shifted from the affluent to the working and middle classes. Reversing such trends, Multnomah County’s preschool program is to be funded by a county income tax on approximately eight percent of households at the top. Combined federal, state, and local income tax rates for such households will still fall far below the top tax federal income tax rates in place for the much of the 20th century, from the 1930s through the 1970s.
Multnomah County intends to offer preschool up to ten hours a day and on weekend days, but has not committed to other “non-traditional” hours. Employers demand “non-traditional” work schedules for the three occupations expected to add the most jobs between 2019 and 2029: home health and personal care aides, fast food and counter workers, and restaurant cooks. Many retail and hospitality positions also entail low wages and employer insistence that workers maintain “open availability,” and healthcare, construction, and gig workers struggle with work schedules that make it very difficult to find child care.
Multnomah County will pay fair wages to everyone working in the classroom, but will not supplement the pay of people working in Head Start and other public preschool and childcare programs that pay too little to retain skilled people in the face of a more attractive alternative. The county plans to support some infant and toddler programs, but won’t be able to overcome the severe shortage of affordable, quality care for these age groups, likely to be exacerbated by competition from a preschool system offering better compensation. Finally, preschool and child care is now crowded into inexpensive or public spaces; serving all children well will require a significant investment in physical facilities.
Despite such continuing challenges, Multnomah County’s Preschool for All offers a national model, with its variety of choices to families, living wages for all classroom staff, and an equitable approach to public funding. Each of these aspects needs to be included in any new federal program. In addition, a new federal program should aspire to offer high quality child care to families struggling with difficult work schedules, until labor legislation is revised to place limits on such unpredictable schedules. Strategies will also need to be implemented to improve the wages of workers in Head Start and other public preschool and childcare programs.
Why Political Science Can and Should Lead Diversity Efforts in Higher Education
Diversity is big business in the academy. Foundations such as Ford, Carnegie, and Robert Wood Johnson support academic efforts to diversify the professoriate; and colleges and universities across the country are investing significant resources in diversity efforts. Furthermore, the academy has begun hiring chief diversity officers, following corporate sector trends — 60% of Fortune 500 companies have chief diversity officers among their top-executives.
Although the numbers of women in political science have shown modest growth over the last two decades, the number of women of color in the field has largely remained flat. Political science scholarship on minority representation in U.S. legislatures sheds light on this professional conundrum, too. This literature shows how organized women, racial and ethnic minorities, and their allies can promote diversity and inclusive practices to bring about lasting change in political science, other disciplines and higher education more broadly.
An Opportune Moment for Political Science
Research on social movements shows that, when windows of opportunity arise, activists must have the resources to change the status quo and push for policy breakthroughs. I suggest that heightened attention to institutional diversity across academia presents an opportunity that political scientists can and should seize by presenting themselves as credible stakeholders who are well-equipped to: steward institutions’ newly available resources, run innovative pilot programs, and produce returns on institutional diversity investments for both students and faculty.
Student demands will be a key resource in these efforts, but administrators can often “wait students out” — stalling student diversity efforts until a new cohort must begin afresh. Political Science is uniquely positioned to lead institutional change by using research from the discipline to encourage student activists to investigate the issues, formulate long- and short-term goals, determine the scope of their influence, identify allies and opponents, construct informed arguments, and make specific demands with measurable outcomes. This informed activism can help students leverage their status over time as students, alumni, and donors to move towards shared goals for departmental, disciplinary, and institutional change.
Political Science is attracting many undergraduate women majors. Women are faring as well as men on the discipline’s job market. They are approaching pay equity with male colleagues and increasing their presence in the ranks of full professors. In 2010, women of color comprised 13.5% of female political science faculty, more than double their share in 1980. Although this improvement remains relatively modest compared to the nearly 300% increase in women faculty over that span, the progress for women of color is promising and can act as a foundation for future diversity efforts. Nevertheless, many challenges must still be addressed — including burdens of balancing tenure-track and family responsibilities, “inhospitable” institutional climates, and research norms that discount women’s contributions to collaborative work.
Building a Diversity Infrastructure
Sheer numbers are the first requirement for building diversity infrastructure. With sufficient numbers, members of gender and racial caucuses can promote further change and build organizational capacities. Research on the impact of diversity in Congress shows that the Congressional Black, Hispanic, and Asian Pacific American caucuses encourage information and resource sharing, enhanced communication, and collective action on behalf of racial and ethnic minorities. Through caucuses, task forces, and organized voting blocs, minority legislators have kept low-salience civil rights issues on the congressional agenda despite waning public interest. Women’s and racial and ethnic caucuses in national and regional political science associations show that female political scientists can capitalize on their numbers to act as disruptive-insiders to further diversify faculties and challenge discrimination.
Buy-in from political science department heads who name search committees and from faculty making influential recommendations will be indispensable for furthering these efforts. Departmental objectives can be linked to university diversity efforts. Male faculty members should be encouraged to serve on diversity committees and act as change agents.
Thinking beyond individual departments, women’s caucuses and ethnic caucuses in political science associations could share resources and knowledge and coordinate agendas. If increasing the racial and ethnic diversity of the discipline is to be achieved, then women’s caucuses will need to work closely with race and ethnic caucuses in the discipline. Although universal sisterhood may be a worthy ideal, faculty women of color cannot be cast as handmaidens rather than full partners in the work of transforming the discipline.
Mentorship is Not Enough
The number of women of color entering political science faculties has stagnated, and many minority faculty members leave political science departments for more hospitable interdisciplinary centers. Recruitment and retention should therefore be top priorities — and that is going to take more than just mentoring programs.
Mentorship is a common answer to the challenge of recruiting, supporting, and retaining minority faculty. Mentoring, however, only teaches people how to survive in institutions. It does not necessarily attract more people to enter institutions, and it does not help them change institutions. Although the very presence of black women on academic faculties and in front of classrooms changes the academy, that is not enough. Despite widely shared good intentions, the discipline cannot rely on mentoring alone to help women of color overcome racism, sexism, and other systematic obstacles to their advancement. At best, mentoring will help women faculty of color expand their social networks, establish important professional relationships, and better navigate minefields. At worst, mentoring will help some individuals survive and advance, while maintaining longstanding power disparities in the discipline. Mentoring obviously cannot ameliorate the impediments that routinely challenge and undermine women of color at all ranks of the professoriate. Political science must lead the way in identifying and deploying all of the strategies that can bring broader progress in universities and disciplines.
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