A state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often amusing as a result.
I’ve spent several days working on my end of year self-evaluation at the university – it’s a painfully long reflective narrative on every component of my job (this year my narrative was 19 pages long). I sent it off to my department chair and abruptly turned my focus to this week’s assigned reading, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff. The irony of it all! It’s ironic because one of the sections of the self-evaluation asks the faculty member to:
List and reflect on the courses you taught this past year. Include your reflections on student evaluations, peer evaluations, and other indicators of teaching effectiveness. Reflection includes a statement of facts as well as the meaning of those facts and a plan to address any important issues that arise. Describe actions you have taken in the last year to improve your teaching and evaluate the results of those actions.
I’ve been teaching since 2010 and always felt confident in my teaching…but students do not receive curriculum content, assignment instructions, or feedback in the same way they did just a short nine years ago. Students are different. They want more….and they expect more. They are unhappy with ambiguity and desire detailed explanations and precise execution of the course. What does this mean for the instructor? I’m not sure, but I invested a lot of time reflecting on this very thing in my evaluation. And now Haidt and Lukianoff – Haidt a social psychologist and Lukianoff a first amendment expert – “show how the new problems on campus have their origins in three terrible ideas that have become increasingly woven into American childhood and education: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker; always trust your feelings; and life is a battle between good people and evil people.”
Lukianoff, in particular, felt that the book’s title should have been more about “disempowered students” rather than “coddled” students. Both Lukianoff and Haidt agree, however that a large number of this generation of students (genZ) are struggling with significant mental health challenges of anxiety, depression, and polarization – which are not at their core the students’ fault, but rather societies fault. They assert that parenting approaches, K-12 education, and higher education all need to be overhauled to correct the current trajectory. The culture of “safetyism” (helicopter parenting) – parent’s efforts to protect children from harm – ultimately prevent children from learning from natural consequences. Natural consequences are the teaching moments where the critical thinking areas of the brain (hippocampus and prefrontal cortex) develop a memory of what not to do based on consequence, and the ability to problem solve what to do “next time”. “They believe this plays a factor in some of the campus speech disputes as students are acculturated to fearing anything that may prove challenging and react accordingly.” The art and skill of critical thinking is a challenge to engender with students today. I see an increase in concrete thinking and a decline in out-of-the-box, creative, critical thinking. I often blame the new methods of “teaching to the test” at the K-12 level of education, but could Safetyism be a contributing factor?
One of my favorite assessment and intervention theories, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), is highlighted by Haidt and Lukianoff – CBT is a method of disrupting “disordered” (distorted) thinking. When a student is exposed to dissenting or disagreeable ideas or thoughts, their own critical thinking and problem solving is strengthened – ultimately increasing their resilience. Speaking of resilience (which is the core of my research…understanding Somali refugees in Columbus, Ohio and their capacity for resilience), one of the most significant factors influencing resilience identified in research is experiencing caring and supportive relationships both in and outside of the family system. Emotionally, these relationships provide love and trust, and role modeling and mentoring which in turn produce encouragement and hope. Another factor associated with the presence of resilience is the ability to emotionally self-regulate through managing difficult emotions and impulses. Behaviorally, self-regulation is the ability to “act in your long-term best interest, consistent with your deepest values”. Emotionally, self-regulation is the “ability to calm yourself down when you’re upset and cheer yourself up when you’re down”. Self-regulation requires the ability to self-reflect and analyze “what” is happening and “why” the emotional reaction is so strong. From this reflection comes insight and the ability to appropriately plan a response. Building on the concept of self-regulation, the ability to create realistic strategies and successfully implement them is another contributing factor of resilience. Often this higher level skill requires the individual to have a strong self-concept (including feeling capable and confident) and be a healthy communicator and problem solver.
The authors agree that “Safetyism is not a cause, but instead is a consequence of a larger problem, a symptom, not the disease itself.” Today’s typical college student was ~ eight-years-old when the global economy collapsed in such an extreme way that the wealthy were even panicked. The resulting economic “recovery” has only intensified our sense of scarcity and precarity. “Students have not been coddled, they’ve been defeated. The nature of that defeat may be different depending on where students are on the socio-economic ladder and how far they’re trying to climb, but the consequences to mental and physical well-being are the same.” We must take heed! I may feel frustrated by the behaviors and attitudes of today’s student, but the responsibility to adjust, inform, and be part of the solution which increases capacity for student resilience is on me…not just them. I will persevere!