Colleges Are Promoting Psychological Frailty and We Should All Be Concerned

“And why do we fall, Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.” – Thomas Wayne, Batman Begins

Administrators at the University of Florida recently notified students that a 24-hour counseling hotline is available to anyone who feels offended by Halloween costumes. Other colleges, in an attempt to pre-empt the psychological threat of offensive costumes, have created and distributed Halloween costume guidelines to help students make appropriate choices if they decide to dress up.

The University of Wisconsin at LaCrosse, for example, encouraged students to attend a special seminar titled “Is Your Halloween Costume Racist?” while Tufts University went a step further, sending a letter to students in fraternities and sororities indicating they could face investigation (by university police) and punishment for making the wrong costume choice.

Of course, this issue is not about Halloween. More and more colleges are creating “bias response teams” that students can contact if they feel they have been victimized by microaggressions. There is an increasing demand for safe spaces and trigger warnings to protect students not from physical danger, but from ideas, course material, and viewpoints they may find offensive. Conservative speakers are being banned from campus because students claim to find them threatening. Professors are being investigated for not being sufficiently politically correct in class, failing to predict what material might trigger students, or refusing to use gender neutral pronouns that are not even part of the English language.

Even more concerning perhaps are recent moves to create racially segregated student retreats, student unions, and campus housing in the service of offering marginalized groups places of refuge and healing.

Many might see such examples as evidence of positive change, a greater sensitivity to gender, racial, and cultural diversity. The problem is that these efforts, even if well-intended, promote a false psychology, that humans are inherently emotionally fragile and can be mentally destabilized or incapacitated by subtle and ambiguous offenses.

Unless students are suffering from a severe mental illness, the type of pathology that would likely keep them from being able to attend and succeed in college to begin with, they should be perfectly capable of remaining psychologically healthy in the face of offensive Halloween costumes, distasteful jokes or comments, and sensitive course material.

People are generally quite psychologically resilient. After all, as far as we know, we are the only species aware of our mortality, and that death can come at any time for reasons we often cannot predict or control. And yet, most of us are not paralyzed by anxiety about our inevitable demise. We are able to get out of bed each morning and be productive citizens. As part of a research project, my colleagues and I collected autobiographical narratives from older British adults who were children during World War II and had very detailed memories of being separated from family, having to take shelter underground during German bombing raids, and facing a considerable amount of personal upheaval and loss.

Those experiences did not mentally break these individuals. In fact, they became sources of meaning and triumph, life events that helped define character and generate gratitude.

My grandmother once told me she was thankful for the hunger and poverty she experienced during the Great Depression because it helped her grow into an empathetic adult and inspired her to always help those in need.

Ironically, the victim protection campaigns many colleges are engaged in not only underestimate human resilience, they may actually cause the problems they are designed to solve because they suggest to students who wouldn’t otherwise feel like victims that they are, in fact, victims.

For instance, feminist professors are encouraging college women to feel fragile and vulnerable, and teaching them that they are not in charge of their own destiny but instead are victims of the patriarchy. I recently interviewed Christina Hoff Sommers, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and an expert on feminism. When describing modern academic feminism, she said “I call it fainting–couch feminism, a la the delicate Victorian ladies who retreated to an elegant chaise when overcome with emotion. As an equality feminist from the 1970s, I am dismayed by this new craze. Women are not children. We are not fragile little birds who can’t cope with jokes, works of art, or controversial speakers.” (The full interview can be read here.)

I am especially concerned about the push to segregate students. Research in social psychology has long shown that segregating people into different groups does not improve relations between groups. It actually causes greater tension, hostility, and conflict.

By nature, people show favoritism toward those they perceive as part of their own tribe, so the key to positive relations between people from different groups is to bring them together under a unified group identity, to foster a sense of common humanity. As Leigh Ann Walls, an army veteran, recently told me, “there was so much diversity in the army, and it worked because we weren’t paying attention to it. We focused outwards, not inwards.”

In most real-world contexts, fragility signals weakness and dependence. But in the victimhood culture promoted on many college campuses, because fragility is celebrated, it signals high status. This creates an arms race in which different groups try to one up each other on which is the most threatened and vulnerable. As Hoff Sommers puts it, on many college campuses victimhood status “confers authority and prestige.”

Historically, people have fought prejudice and discrimination by demonstrating that they are equally intelligent, strong, and capable. I have yet to see any evidence that playing up one’s emotional vulnerabilities will actually lead to any long-term positive outcomes.

The self-focus of the victimhood movement also diminishes the real suffering going on in the world. I worked for a couple of years in community social and mental health services. It was eye-opening. I counseled women who had lost custody of their children and were desperately trying to develop needed life skills and sever relationships with abusive men in the hope of getting their kids back. I worked with homeless people who were trying to find a job and a place to live, but were struggling with addiction and mental health problems, making it hard for them to reliably comply with our program. I saw up close the crystal methamphetamine epidemic wreck many young lives.

America is filled with truly hurting and broken people. They are an entirely different class of individuals than the growing number of college students demanding safe spaces and trigger warnings.

Curiously, the loudest cries often come from students attending the most expensive and elite colleges. Poor single moms trying to work their way through community college don’t have time to fetishize victimhood. I know that there are students who legitimately struggle with mental illness and they should get the help they need, but as a nation we cannot afford to celebrate and promote psychological fragility.

Nothing good can come from treating colleges like hospitals, places where sick students come to be quarantined and healed. Instead, we should treat colleges like fitness centers for the brain, places where students learn to build their mental muscles. Training is hard, sometimes painful. But it makes one stronger.

  • bdavi52

    Humans are, by nature, anti-fragile. Stress, pain, challenge, adversity — all these things (assuming we survive them) make us stronger, tougher, more resilient, and better able to handle future stressors more effectively.

    That is how life works; it’s how it’s always worked. In most cultures we call that process of Stress/Change/Growth maturation, becoming an adult. We learn as children not just how to do things for ourselves but how to deal with the world (and our reaction to that world) when life just doesn’t work the way we wished…when things go bad. As parents, seeking to build such resiliency, we ask our teary child: “OK, it hurts…it didn’t work…you’re not where you wanted to be: so what are you going to do about it? How would you do this differently? What have you learned? What will you change?”

    Or not.

    We can choose, instead, as Mr. Routledge so eloquently notes, to succor, sympathize, insulate, and soothe. We can provide the bruised ego, the insulted sensitivity, the ‘fragile, eggshell mind’ of the melting Snowflake a SafePlace. We can smooth the ‘kicky blanky’…we can dry the tear…we can provide ice cream and warm chocolate chip cookies. We can go further (and most times we do) and actually solve the problem for them. If something is offensive, we pluck it out. If a pronoun is wrong, we change it. If a costume triggers woozy bellies, we devise a Costume Review & Sanction Process (perhaps even hire a Dean of Correct Costume Design).

    And then, rather than building a critical anti-fragility into these emergent adults….we swaddle them with warm placation and graduate a class of helpless & highly dependent children who wait for Mama or the Dean or the State to swoop in, kiss it, and make it all better. We have wrought, with such practice, NOT the Greatest Generation…not even the arrogance of the Me Generation….rather we have ‘birthed’ a generation of the Self-Righteously Pouting (waiting for Bias Response Team to come in & save them). And that is truly pathetic.

    • blackfargo

      It’s not just pathetic, the infantilism is simply gross.

  • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

    I have seen some of Christina Hoff Sommers’ ideas since when she was at Clark University, and especially in her book ‘The War Against Boys’, but none of this comes through in this article or the attached interview. I am not sure why. I am sorry to hear that her husband died.

  • louthebowler

    Amen. I couldn’t agree more.

  • gabrielsyme

    Increasingly, colleges are causing anti-civilizational outcomes: Psychological frailty, absolutely, but also partisan blindness, a militant feminism that erodes America’s demographic vitality and a focus on opposition to our civilizational heritage (Women’s studies, various ethnic studies, Queer studies, Gender studies, etc.) at the expense of teaching the roots of our culture.

    If you closed everything but the STEM schools and maybe a few professional schools (business, law, accountancy) would America be economically worse off? In terms of cultural and mental health, we’d almost certainly be better off.

  • Randall Woodman

    Poor little snowflakes.

  • Morrill Turpitude

    What Professor Routledge describes are three of the biggest problems in education, particularly in regards to what education’s role is supposed to be in society.

    One problem is schools at all levels are increasingly being divorced from real life. Whether the phenomenon is safe spaces, microaggressions, Common Core, trigger warnings, politicization of classes (nearly always Leftist)–they all are indicative of education’s increasing tilt toward insularity, the education establishment walling itself off from the outside world. Life is much easier when you can make your own rules, and when you do not have to deal with the vicissitudes of minute-to-minute existence. That is why Leftists flock to the academy. Their theories do not work in real life, but they compliance can be forced in schools. But the problem is not all from the schools. Civil rights departments of government and ADA offices also cause problems in schools by creating situations unrelated to reality. Campuses increasingly are islands of society akin to amusement parks in which reality is suspended inside, walls or fences keep the real world out, and the customer is supposed to be made happy.

    That leads to the second problem I wish to address: The increasing trend of college administrators treating students as customers only. Certainly students are customers purchasing a product. They are not, however, the same as a retail customer purchasing items. Once a person enters a classroom they are a student. They are not entitled to a good grade, or a passing grade for that matter. They are entitled to learning opportunities that should equip them for success in the class and life, but it is up to the student to do some work. Nor should students necessarily expect to be taught only in ways they find easiest. One of the major goals of schooling should be to teach people how to adapt, how to overcome, how to find ways to thrive in less than optimal circumstances. Administrators are pushing being “accommodating” to students, to teach in ways students find enjoyable and light. Sorry, but real life isn’t like that. A lot of real life is drudgery, chores. Few people work at jobs they really want to be at. Most people in real life have to work at jobs where they must suck up their dreams & desires 8-10 hours a day to keep a roof over their family’s heads, put food on the table, have clothes in the closet. School should not be teaching students how important they are, but how unimportant they are in the universal scheme of things yet can be more than what they are at the time.

    The third problem I will discuss is perhaps the most important problem and a probable cause of the first two problems I referred to: A dramatically growing number of educators (instructors and administrators alike) have no substantive experience outside of school. They have been in school since they were little kids. When they got their college degrees, they simply switched sides of the desk without holding any jobs outside the academy other than the part-time jobs students usually hold and walk away from when the job is no longer needed or school is done. A decreasing number of educators have no real-life experience in careers, or even non-education jobs they had to hang onto to pay bills until something better comes. I am of an age where many of my college professors had been in World War II, Korea, or Vietnam, and if they had not been sent abroad they still served 2-4 years in uniform. Most of my high school teachers had substantial work records in non-education jobs. They had seen the real world, they knew how to operate in it, they were able to teach in ways that helped me and their other students be successful when it was our time. The decreasing ranks of college faculty who have substantial real-world experience are now treated as pariahs by their growing number of colleagues with none. If you have lived and operated in a world of theory and belief all your life, and you are in a situation life and jobwise where you do not have to put your theories to test or be forced to see it happen, you can afford to operate in a fantasy world–especially when you are not burdened with consequences for being wrong. Their students pay that price.

    • blackfargo

      I always hated that saying “Those who can’t, teach”.because many of my professors were accomplished outside of the university system. However, there were also just as many who went straight into teaching right after acquiring their grad degrees. Basically, they were professional students until they could teach. You could easily tell who those professors were because they didn’t encourage non-bias discussion, and often graded you by whether or not you agreed with them simply because they had little experience to fall back on other than their lesson plans. I have a feeling that there are much more of them in the system now.

      • Morrill Turpitude

        Sadly there is a lot more of those professional students teaching than ever. Or entering educational administration. Like I said, those faculty with accomplishments outside the university system are treated as pariahs by the growing numbers of those who don’t. I should also not forget to mention the institution of “Instructional designers,” very few of whom have ever been in an actual classroom as anything but a student.

  • George Leef

    I believe that the main reason for this mania is that colleges and universities are overstuffed with administrators who a) are all deeply “progressive” and b) have lots of time on their hands for virtue signaling.

    • Roch Yang

      Plus the administrators are not morally-upright, bright, and learned people. They see the oodles and oodles of dosh that come to them when they foster hatred against Straight White Males. Fixated on cash, they’d hate even a Beaver Cleaver, a Richie Cunningham, and a Bobby Brady to further their goal of keeping Straight White Males nailed to a kind of societal cross whenever doing so suits their bottom-line goal(s). Political-social winds can change, but this one constant (keeping Straight White Males in Society’s bull’s-eye) never does and never will as long as the anti–intellectual and anti-moral political Far Left has anything to do with it.

      Look at the Far Left to see in action the maxim: “Evil is as Evil does.”

  • Roch Yang

    Amen, Professor! These folks are pathetic.

    Here in Gangland Central (the State of California), a Jose, a Maria, a DeShaun, a Sy Thanh, and an allegedly hermaphroditic transvestite named Lillian all fight for the most visible place on the Victim Stage whilst shouting that it has been all of the Straight White Males who’ve directly and indirectly, unintentionally or intentionally, kept them down and hurt their chances of realising that existential programmatic slogan from the 1980s: “Be all that you can be.” And a vast number of the Straight White Males accept, apriori, their assumed guilt without ever having gone to court. They are akin to herds of sheep being led to slaughter, and they ba-ba-ba passively whilst being led to the slaughterhouse.

    This is the end-result of about 60 years of political-social indoctrination by the anti-intellectual motley crew propagandists of the political Far Left who literally throw stones at their perceived enemies (Straight White Males, rich or poor) and break their bones whilst removing as much of the latter’s autonomy and personal sovereignty as possible via state-supported and legally-codified means that wave a metaphysical middle finger at the Constitution of your Republic and the constitutions of your nation’s states. Laws mean nothing to the basest elements of the masses.

    The backlash against the decidedly un-American decades of far leftist terror has resulted in Mister Donald Trump being elected as your nation’s next president. It has been a given that the rabble of the political Far Left (the BLM, the Checas, the Atzlans and the Femi-Nazis) would take to the streets and alleys and burn down some building and murder some white males, as has happened in Chicago and Portland and Seattle this past week. All of the spurious accusations screamed by sociopaths of the Far Left against Straight White Males -racism, sexism, and other isms- are in fact the property of the Far Left, just as they were in my homeland of China when Mao, et al ruled the nation with a bloody grip.

    Orwell’s portrayal of the Far Left is right in front of your eyes 24/7. The Far Left does not want equality; the Far Left wants Straight White Males eliminated as a group. And they will never, ever deviate from working towards realising that goal.

  • I bought Christina Hoff Sommers’ book “Who Stole Feminism?” from my local library for a quarter. It was a very good read.

    I am a very conservative woman. I’ve also been through quite a lot in the past few years. These crybabies are worried about being “triggered” by “microaggressions.” I’d like to see how they handle MY situation.

  • ltbl123

    When for the first time in your life you discover yourself in the minority position or in some cases a losing position, “thank God”, or if you prefer, “your lucky stars” that you do live in a Republic and not a Democracy!! The wisdom of those who created the electoral college has once again been proven to be of inestimable value and its very existence has protected this nation from losing its heritage and its freedoms to into the hands of those who through fraud and deception might steal it from the rest of us!!
    Even now evil is not content and would like to change the rules and (between riots in the streets) seeks to pervert the protections provided under our Constitution to prevent a mobocracy! Ben Franklin was right, we have been given something precious, ” A Republic if we can keep it!” For the ignorant ,senseless, or ego frail go out and buy some larger underwear and you will soon feel much better.

  • Bravo! Brave words in a PC world that torches those of us who speak what we see as the truth. My hat is off to you. My own approach to this craziness is to simply hammer away at the idea that “men are good.” This phrase gets these folks pretty upset since their entire world view is based on men being the problem, being immature, being greedy and on and on. Would like to be in touch. You can find me at @trgolden

    • Joseph Beck

      Thank you for posting your Link. I have already checked it out and showed my wife some of the articles. It’s full of intelligent, thought provoking material that relies on facts and reasoning instead of emotion and false logic…..I have always thought the ‘male privilege’ argument to be obsurd. Especially since I stufied alot of anthropology in college where I learned that across the world, from culture to culture men died younger, more violently, have more health problems, work longer hours, see their families less, have more regrets, etc etc. Where is the privilege at again?

      • Thanks Joseph for your affirming words. Glad you find it of use.

  • allencic

    As a retired college professor I can’t imagine me or any of my colleagues that I respected putting up with this PC-delicate snowflake silliness for a second. It’s so disgusting and depressing to see these kids wasting so much time, money and emotional currency only to become useless pseudo victims who will never grow up and be functioning adults.

  • kurt9

    I say stop calling this liberalism. This stupidity is an insult to liberals. When I was in college, I had several professors who were very liberal politically. Nevertheless, they were very fine professors and they would not have tolerated this silliness anymore than we would.

    • Randall Murphree

      But this IS the kind of insanity that liberal politicians have fostered, encouraged, and even enforced on a society that was — before Obama’s reign — making steady progress in race relations and other minority group relations. Academia as a whole, has bought into Obama’s divisive policies and helped create the cultural chaos which is inexcusable, irrational, and unlawful. And law enforcement often has its hands tied in how to deal with it — again because of the shrill cries of rabid liberals.

    • js27195

      progressiveness grows more progressive over time… that’s one of it’s major flaws.

      • Ortum Lynx

        This makes a lot of sense actually. I wonder if the same holds true about the right, do they get more and more conservative over time?

        • js27195

          With strict conservatives, yes it can. With conservative constitutionalism it doesn’t seem to occur, mainly because they have an anchor document to hold them fixed.

  • ursafan40

    I spoke with my brother tonight. Seems his extremely well adjusted daughter was telling him stories of the “snowflakes” at Oklahoma. Crying for days. Missing classes because of their “trauma”. Professors cancelling exams because kids were hyperventilating.
    They both had a good laugh. I love my niece.

  • Trina G-Thomas

    Wallowing in self-pity…has NEVER been good for anybody.

  • Docpenn

    Cui bono?

  • connie

    Thank you for your perspective. Refreshing to hear there are people on our campuses who would spice the PC pot with a little common sense.

  • Winston Smith

    Snowflakes are bullies taking a page from Joseph Stalin’s purge of political opponents or maybe Pol Pot or Mao (along with Che and Chavez): all guys glorified by the leftest anarchists in the colleges and in streets, some of them funded by good ol G. Soros.

  • HumbleGardener

    Excellent example of how to write an engaging, informative essay.

  • js27195

    If you treat adults as adults, they will act like adults. If you treat an adult like a child, they will act like a child… and we wonder why they’re rioting in the streets.

  • Wayne W

    The push for segregation of students was espoused before and advanced by HF Verwoerd in South Africa.

    He called it Apartheid.