I had lunch today with the Vice President of Student Affairs at our local university. I had invited him specifically to get his take on Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. I wanted to hear how about how our university (where my son attends) helps prepare students for a world full of competing, diverse, even offensive ideas. We exchanged pleasantries at the restaurant and I asked him about his day. He said he had spent the morning putting protocols in place to prepare the campus should the coronavirus make its way to our town.
So far as I know, COVID-19 is not yet in my little corner of north Texas- at least not the actual virus. Our local news media have not reported any instances, nor have the hospitals released any information regarding public health. But while the virus may not (yet) be in our midst, it’s on our minds. We watch the stock markets react to concerns about supply chains. Like my friend from the university, our church staff are having conversations regarding door greeters, offering plates, communion, nursery toys and supplies, etc., but we are still only dealing in the hypothetical. Opinions about the outbreak have spread, as have generalizations, speculations, and some conspiracy theories.
For my part, I have become a little more intentional about healthy hygiene practices. I am currently operating from an assumption that this particular pandemic will likely rank among bird flu and swine flu (to name a couple) in the echelon of global health events, certainly something to address, especially for the most vulnerable in our populations, but nothing we need to panic and lose our minds about.
The problem is, we seem to enjoy losing our minds over things. Today’s culture and the way information is shared align perfectly for the spread of “dis-ease” among us. Outrage is stirred and offense is taken as easily as breathing in the vapor droplets of a stranger’s sneeze from twenty feet away. (Yes, I know that’s a gross image!)
Sickness can spread fast on a college campus. Students are often in close proximity to one another. Their immune systems might be already compromised by the stress and pressures of their schedules. And many colleges celebrate students who come from other parts of the country as well as other parts of the world. And like a virus, outrage and offense can flow across a campus as a provocative idea turns into a controversy that, if not contained, can erupt into a crisis overnight.
My university friend told me of a situation that had occurred the previous year in which a graduate student at the school was “outed” as a member of a white supremacist organization. This student was well-liked by professors and classmates, earned good grades, and had no record of any problems. The discovery was made when a closed social media group was hacked and this student’s private views were made public. Students on campus, as well as their parents, demanded that the student be expelled.
In a paper that would become the launching point for their book, Lukianoff and Haidt argue that “students should be taught how to live in a world full of potential offenses.” Yet we seem to like being angry. Brant Hansen writes, “people thrive on being offended. It makes us feel more righteous to get aggravated at the behavior of other people.” Outrage and offense may stir our emotions and perhaps give us a sense of moral superiority, they may even help us feel safer in some strange way, but they are not our most productive tools.
What if, instead of outrage and offense, students were taught how to listen for understanding and how to express disagreement in respectful and healthy ways? But this must not wait for a college student to attend freshmen orientation. Lukianoff writes, “When it comes to free speech, every single university in the country should explain the philosophy behind freedom of speech, free inquiry, and academic freedom during freshman orientation. Until we start teaching these concepts, the fact that students aren’t showing that they understand them is entirely on us. This is something that we’re doing to a generation. This is on us. This is on parents.”
We parents and educators must own our contributions to the culture we have created and we must, with humility and determination, look for ways to do better. Lukianoff and Haidt devote the final part of their book to ideas and strategies for helping students, universities, and societies become wiser. For a starting point, I offer the words from a wall hanging in my childhood home that featured a poem written in 1972 by Dorothy Nolte. The poem was titled, “Children Live What They Learn.”
If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn.
If children live with hostility, they learn to fight.
If children live with fear, they learn to be apprehensive.
If children live with pity, they learn to feel sorry for themselves.
If children live with ridicule, they learn to feel shy.
If children live with jealousy, they learn to feel envy.
If children live with shame, they learn to feel guilty.
If children live with encouragement, they learn confidence.
If children live with tolerance, they learn patience.
If children live with praise, they learn appreciation.
If children live with acceptance, they learn to love.
If children live with approval, they learn to like themselves.
If children live with recognition, they learn it is good to have a goal.
If children live with sharing, they learn generosity.
If children live with honesty, they learn truthfulness.
If children live with fairness, they learn justice.
If children live with kindness and consideration, they learn respect.
If children live with security, they learn to have faith in themselves and in those about them.
If children live with friendliness, they learn the world is a nice place in which to live.
What can we do this week to turn our tendencies toward outrage and offense into something more positive and productive so that we might launch an outbreak of respect, love, and hope?
 Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, “The Coddling of the American Mind.” The Atlantic Monthly 316, no. 2 (2015): 42-52. https://search-proquest.com.georgefox.idm.oclc.org/docview/1708894607?rfr_id=info%3Axri%2Fsid%3Aprimo.
 Brant Hansen, “Unoffendable: How Just One Change Can Make All of Life Better,” (Nashville: W Publishing Group, 2015,) 13.
 Greg Lukianoff, “I Wish We Were Wrong,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 14, 2018, A6+, Gale Academic OneFile. https://link-gale-com.georgefox.idm.oclc.org/apps/doc/A556107789/AONE?u=newb64238&sid=AONE&xid=39b2dc8
 Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure,” (USA: Penguin Books, 2018,) Kindle.
 Dorothy Law Nolte, “Children Live What They Learn,” 1972.