The problem with mollycoddling university students

Higher education is to broaden horizons, not to simply embrace a homogenous view of the world

Intolerance of the public expression of controversial ideas has grown markedly in recent years and, paradoxically, nowhere more so than on university campuses, particularly American campuses. Craig Harper, a psychologist at Nottingham Trent University, argues cogently in The Psychologist, December 2017, that not only does this intolerance contradict core principles of higher education, it also retards the healthy psychological development of undergraduates.

Of course, nobody could credibly argue that every opinion under the sun has a right to be aired publicly and public expression of certain opinions is rightly curtailed under legislation, eg incitement to violence. But there is now a range of topics, expression of opinions which are not officially proscribed, that are guaranteed to elicit very excited and intolerant opposition if raised for public debate on American campuses and, increasingly, on UK campuses. Two examples of such topics are the scientific basis of gender and the links between certain religious doctrines and violent extremism.

A range of practices are now commonly employed in American universities to protect students from being offended or traumatised by hearing certain opinions. These include creating "safe spaces" on campus where students are guaranteed not to be exposed to anything upsetting. Professors may also be obliged to alert students by issuing "trigger warnings" before a lecture if they deem any of the lecture content might trigger upset in some students – eg Shakespeare's depiction of Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, in the Merchant of Venice. The mere idea that such practices would be introduced into institutes of higher learning should be risible, but unfortunately they have become accepted and are now leaking across the Atlantic.

Visiting speakers to American campuses are often prevented from speaking. This happened closer to home a few weeks ago when a meeting at Oxford University, organised by the pro-life society to discuss abortion in Ireland, was completely disrupted by chanting protesters.

Tendency to protect children

Harper proposes that this intolerance is rooted in the increasing tendency among parents over the past 20 years to protect children from external harm. This trend, influenced by high-profile cases of violence and sexual offences against children, has developed into a tendency to protect children against any form of physical or psychological discomfort. Young people have grown accustomed to this and now expect not to have to endure any form of discomfort and to have minor disputes settled by external agents. They easily develop a sense of victimhood and they perceive this entitles them to a right to be protected and to have their aggressors punished.

Students should be exposed to a wide range of opinions, even though this may be uncomfortable for some

Social media significantly exacerbates the situation. About 90 per cent of young people regularly use Facebook, mainly forming and maintaining social relationships online and about 60 per cent use Facebook as their primary source of news. Many young people live in social media "echo chambers" where their entire social network centres on pure ideological principles and viewpoints. Anyone introducing conflicting viewpoints can be "unfriended" by clicking a button.

Harper explains that this lack of political variety in modern social networks prevents people from learning about their political outgroups and how to deal with them; thereby building barriers to constructive political and intergroup relations. When such contacts are absent, stereotypes and prejudices flourish and perceptions, not reality, guide judgements. Only repeated exposure to outgroups can break down automatic responses and replace them with appraisals based on knowledge.

University practices and policies described earlier prevent students from being confronted with events, information and other stimuli that might trigger adverse emotional responses. All of this directly contradicts recommended good practice for building psychological resilience and good mental health. The university experience frustrates the development of psychological resilience in many students. The young graduates are then launched into the wider world completely unable to successfully confront the forest of stimuli there that will trigger negative emotional responses.

Harper advocates the vital importance of building psychological resilience into the university experience at all levels. Students should be exposed to a wide range of different opinions and ideologies and provided the opportunity to engage in political debate, even though this may be uncomfortable for some. Amazingly, it seems universities need to be reminded that, as Harper puts it, “the whole point of higher education is to broaden horizons, not to simply embrace a homogenous view of the world”.

William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry at UCC