“I need to know the University understands how this makes me feel. I am offended.”
This is a common statement I hear from students when they counter decisions made by university staff and faculty. As members of Gen Z continue their way through the college experience, those of us tasked with the holistic development of students find ourselves often scratching our heads as we try to understand how we got here: to this place where everyone is good or evil and all programming is forced to be emotionally and intellectually numb.
Haidt and Lukianoff’s The Coddling of the American Mind is an excellent place to begin this process of untangling the current struggle of anyone in higher education leadership. I would enjoy good coffee and conversation with my colleagues over many parts of this book, but I especially enjoyed the authors’ challenge to colleges and universities to teach students to use generous interpretation when engaging dissonant viewpoints. This has been an increasing struggle in recent years. It seems nothing we [leaders] say is right, and often the worst possible assumption is the first assumption made by students. Haidt and Lukianoff agree:
It is crucial to teach incoming students to be thoughtful in their interactions with one another. But if you teach students that intention doesn’t matter, and you also encourage students to find more things offensive (leading them to experience more negative impacts), and you also tell them that whoever says or does the things they find offensive are “aggressors” who have committed acts of bigotry against them, then you are probably fostering feelings of victimization, anger, and hopelessness in your students. They will come to see the world – and even their university – as a hostile place where things never seem to get better…
…Teaching students to use the least generous interpretations possible is likely to engender precisely the feelings of marginalization and oppression that almost everyone wants to eliminate.
This is significantly important to me since in my context, developing leaders for the church is paramount. Kindness, gentleness, self-control and long-suffering are fruits of the Spirit and should be evident in the life of every believer, especially those who have answered a divine call to spend their lives spreading the Gospel. It is important for our students to learn how to deal with society graciously, but also important for them to learn to lead people and conversations out of polarizing camps where everyone feels marginalized, and up to places where people are made better by the life-changing work of the Spirit. This doesn’t mean people will never disagree, but it does mean that we have to allow for unintended mistakes as we seek to find a path forward.
I recognize this is easier said than done since, as the authors admit, we have allowed ourselves to arrive at a place where everything must fit into a box and the purpose of education is lost in an attempt to make everyone feel comfortable. At the university where I serve, we have
chosen to frame our expectations of incoming students in a symbolic way. During their orientation experience, each student is given a piece of raw iron, explaining that the university experience is one that will sharpen the raw material in their hearts and minds. If they are willing to engage hard work, difficult conversations, and new ideas, they will be shaped into the people God intends them to be. When they graduate, students are given a bookmark made of shiny metal, inscribed with the University’s values, congratulating them on allowing the refining work of their experiences in and out of the classroom to be completed. Obviously, this is only a symbol of what is actually very difficult work, but it does represent one way we are attempting to invite students into gracious conversation.
Haidt and Lukianoff offer much for us to think about. Wising up and engaging solutions to the “three bad ideas” is important work and cannot be ignored.
 Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting up a Generation for Failure (New York: Penguin Press, 2018), 46.
 Ibid, 52.