Harvard University now makes it a point of pride to turn out fragile, unresilient graduates with little hope of functioning well in society
There was a time not long ago when universities used to take pride in turning out well-rounded graduates, young adults who were not only skilled in their chosen discipline but who could also hold their own in debate and ably relate to those from other walks of life or bearing different opinions.
But in 2016 it is increasingly evident that with their overwhelming focus on social justice – no longer a side issue but a common thread running through a contemporary student’s entire experience on campus and in the classroom – American universities in particular are actively harming the life prospects of their students by fostering such a therapeutic climate of social justice groupthink that the slightest intrusion of the rough real world is in some cases enough to provoke a real mental and emotional crisis.
Take this incredibly overwrought essay in the Harvard Political Review, which has apparently fallen so low that it now readily publishes weepy accounts from shellshocked students who happen to encounter hurtful words while on campus.
Student Aidan Connaughton writes:
I have heard hate speech in many situations in my life – so much so that I have become accustomed to it, even grown to expect it in some instances. Throughout middle and high school, I heard it so often that I knew the patterns, knew the lead-ins, and knew when I had to brace myself for the sting. Today, however, I did not brace myself.
“Faggot.” “Stop being a faggot.” “What is he? Some kind of faggot?” These all-too-familiar words continue to echo in my head. These are the words I have shielded myself against for years, the words I have learned to block out, coming from the people I have learned to avoid. These are the words that people use when committing hate crimes, and the words that were used for decades to oppress people just because they loved differently.
I never expected these words at lunch in Annenberg from a group of Harvard freshmen.
My guard was down, because I had forgotten what it felt like to hear these words. I know better now. I will not repeat that mistake.
Okay, so from this we can deduce that Aidan Connaughton is gay, and that he heard other students use the word “faggot” in what he felt was a derogatory way. Fair enough. As Connaughton makes clear, he has had this word directed at him from tormentors many times in his childhood, and quite understandably finds it upsetting.
But what follows is a damning indictment of how Harvard University, in a presumably well-intentioned effort to shelter people like Aidan Connaughton from ever encountering the rough and unpleasant views of the outside word so long as they are on campus, is actually retarding the ability of its students to withstand the unfair bumps and scrapes of real life. No gay person deserves to be called a faggot. But neither do young gay students deserve to be stripped of the ability to function and thrive in an imperfect world where hate and prejudice still exist.
Connaughton continues (my emphasis in bold):
Fair Harvard, the bastion of liberal values, a progressive environment where activists stand up against hate and students fight for progress in the belief that they can change the world. It is the place where workers and students unite to fight for health care, where students write plays about Black Lives Matter, where they organize rallies and marches to support survivors of sexual assault. It is the place where mental health is important and QSA is an established organization and where social justice is an integral pillar of student life. The students at Harvard have taught me how to embrace progressive movements and how to fight against administrative oppression. They have supported me, so much so that sometimes I can forget that the world outside of Johnston Gate does not care about social justice in the same homogeneous way as Harvard students. We fight against the Harvard administration to eradicate the structural oppression that continues at our school, and students may clash with each other over whether or not a classroom should be a safe space, but these disagreements seem to be more intellectual than hostile.
In other words, Harvard University is creating a very artificial environment in which their young adult students are expected to mature and grow into robust, well rounded people. By Connaughton’s own admission, the political climate on campus is so sterile and homogeneous that he is able to go for long stretches of time without encountering a contrary opinion, let alone an actively hostile one. This is a young man who has been consciously made fragile by the application of an ideology which preaches that words can cause real harm, and whose “immune system” to hearing non-affirming things has steadily atrophied in an environment where it has scarcely been needed.
And this is the result:
My little group of like-minded friends and I have frequent discussions on activism, politics, and campus issues, yet we usually come to a consensus on whatever issue we debate. I had grown so used to being understood and having my friends agree with me. I was no longer afraid to believe in social justice, the way I had been in my conservative hometown during high school. I had grown accustomed to a student body that was well informed and shared my beliefs. I thought that, at the very least, Harvard students are respectful and above making purposefully insensitive comments.
This is a young man whose idea of a debate is talking with his existing friendship circle, all of whom hold the same beliefs as him, and then (astonishingly) reaching a consensus. The only wonder is that they only “usually” come to a consensus, considering the homogenised intellectual atmosphere.
Worse still – for our democracy, at least – is Connaughton’s notion that this uniformity of thought exists because all of his fellow students are “well informed and shared [his] beliefs”. The obvious corollary to this is that anybody who does not share the worldview of Connaughton and his friends must be ignorant and wrong. There is no room in this worldview for the possibility that those who do not concur with each and every article of the Social Justice Catechism might do so from a position of honest, principled disagreement, and as the honest result of holding a different value system.
The article then builds up to the incident itself, in dramatic fashion:
But today, at table A11, as I sat down with my plate of red spiced chicken breast and broccoli, I overheard that word for the first time since leaving Colorado Springs to come to Cambridge. Two tables away, Dean Khurana was sharing a meal in Annenberg with a group of excited, overeager freshmen. But here were three Harvard students using this hate speech, laughing in their matching Harvard Men’s Lacrosse jackets, unaware that just three seats away, I was listening.
I said nothing to them. I was too shocked to think of anything to say. I held it in, reverted back to middle school, because I didn’t want to believe that I was hearing this word from one of my peers yet again – that I hadn’t left that behind.
So the word “fag” was not even addressed to Connaughton directly. While it was still undoubtedly unpleasant to hear, the suspense which builds throughout the piece makes it seem as though he was the victim of a direct homophobic diatribe, directed at him while he tried to enjoy his red spiced chicken breast (which hopefully, despite its name, was not a culturally appropriative dish). But this is not the case. Connaughton’s trauma – and this entire article – were prompted merely by overhearing the word being used in a conversation between other people.
If alarm bells are not already sounding at the evident mental fragility of this student, what follows is most concerning of all:
I thought that, at least at Harvard, we had won that battle. The culture of Harvard makes us believe that the world shares our views, and that what we believe in is right. Puncturing the bubble of liberalism at Harvard is painful, but it is as easy as hearing a single derogatory word from across the table.
This is almost childlike in its plaintive naivety. But one thing is crystal clear: the culture of Harvard University, now so fawningly tailored to the loud demands of the social justice warriors, is actively harming those who study there. For not only does pandering to the Cult of Identity Politics create a stultifying groupthink atmosphere on campus, it also encourages the utterly unrealistic belief that the rest of the world will be just as careful not to cause offence or tiptoe around any delicate sensibilities.
The most depressing thing in this case is that the student, Aidan Connaughton, is very aware that he is living in a bubble. He calls it a bubble of liberalism, which is obviously incorrect – for there is nothing liberal about maintaining an oppressive atmosphere where controversial or hurtful things can never be said. But the tragedy is that while he is aware that he is living in a bubble, he has no desire to escape and deal with the world as it really is. Living in the bubble has robbed him of the mental armour required to deal with the bumps and scrapes of life, and so rather than puncture the campus bubble and be free he seeks in vain to expand the bubble to encompass his whole world.
I don’t know how it can possibly be made clearer: social justice, identity politics and the idea of the university as a safe space are working together to gravely retard the emotional and intellectual development of today’s students – even Harvard students, who may be among the brightest minds of their generation, but many of whom will graduate incredibly ill prepared to function in the real world.
Harvard has failed Aidan Connaughton. But the failure was not that university administrators allowed a solitary hurtful phrase to be uttered within his earshot; the failure was that in their desperation to appease the demands of the social justice and identity politics movement, the university stripped away any and all of the means by which Connaughton might possibly have developed the intellectual robustness and emotional anti-fragility to deal with what could potentially be an everyday occurrence in the cold, harsh outside world.
Postscript: No wonder Harvard is in such a mess. This is now the declared mission of Harvard College (my emphasis in bold):
The mission of Harvard College is to educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society. We do this through our commitment to the transformative power of a liberal arts and sciences education.
Beginning in the classroom with exposure to new ideas, new ways of understanding, and new ways of knowing, students embark on a journey of intellectual transformation. Through a diverse living environment, where students live with people who are studying different topics, who come from different walks of life and have evolving identities, intellectual transformation is deepened and conditions for social transformation are created. From this we hope that students will begin to fashion their lives by gaining a sense of what they want to do with their gifts and talents, assessing their values and interests, and learning how they can best serve the world.
Abandon hope all ye who enter here.
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Be afraid. Be very afraid.
In twenty or thirty years’ time people like Aidan will be in charge. When that happens, free speech truly will be history. Indeed, it might not even be history, if they then go on to expunge the relevant parts of the historical record.
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