Low Self-Esteem at Colleges (Even Harvard): What’s Going On?

Side view of John Harvard statue

I just read a fascinating article by a university professor in the humanities. He goes by the pseudonym of Edward Schlosser and the article is entitled, “I’m a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me.” [vox.com 6/3/15]

It’s a meandering and difficult article, filled with many vague or ill-defined concepts and points. But the gist of it is a liberal university professor upset over the state of contemporary students. He describes changes in students even over the last five years, and not for the better.

What’s the problem? Students are more prone than ever before to become offended. Once they become offended, they’re extremely angry and they threaten the offending teacher (even a liberal one, in his case) with rebukes, reprisals, formal complaints and even unemployment.

Although Schlosser does not identify the basic problem, he’s talking about the primacy of emotions over reason, objectivity and truth. He’s also talking about the growing dominance of the victim mentality.

The press for actionability, or even for comprehensive analyses that go beyond personal testimony, is hereby considered redundant, since all we need to do to fix the world’s problems is adjust the feelings attached to them and open up the floor for various identity groups to have their say. All the old, enlightened means of discussion and analysis —from due process to scientific method — are dismissed as being blind to emotional concerns and therefore unfairly skewed toward the interest of straight white males. All that matters is that people are allowed to speak, that their narratives are accepted without question, and that the bad feelings go away.

So it’s not just that students refuse to countenance uncomfortable ideas — they refuse to engage them, period. Engagement is considered unnecessary, as the immediate, emotional reactions of students contain all the analysis and judgment that sensitive issues demand. As Judith Shulevitz wrote in the New York Times, these refusals can shut down discussion in genuinely contentious areas, such as when Oxford canceled an abortion debate. More often, they affect surprisingly minor matters, as when Hamsphire College disinvited an Afrobeat band because their lineup had too many white people in it.

It’s not a good article. If it were a good article, the professor would have concluded, “We have brought this on ourselves. We tell young people that the world consists of victims and victimizers. We encourage them to place feelings above facts, even in the realm of academia. We attack capitalism, self-interest, and America itself precisely because America has been more successful than other nations in history. Instead of trying to figure out why America became successful, we claim that America has achieved its potential because of racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and basically by hurting the feelings of others.”

Of course, the professor concluded none of this. He’s a “liberal,” after all, and to even suggest such things would bring down his own intellectual world. Instead, he ruminated and fretted and more or less concluded that even though “liberal” attitudes and ideas should have led to enlightenment and rationality, it seems that just the opposite has happened.

But the article was nevertheless revealing. Like a drowning passenger outside a sinking ship, Schlosser cries out for two concepts in the midst of all the irrationality in academia: Due process and scientific method.

I find that fascinating. Due process refers to reason and rationality applied to law and government; scientific method refers to reason and rationality applied to the advancement of knowledge.

When he uses terms like “analyses,” “enlightened means of discussion,” and “engagement,” he’s talking about the volitional exercise of the faculty that integrates the material perceived by our senses — that is, the faculty of reason. Emotions need not be at war with reason and facts. But emotions are not the means for figuring out what’s true. When having a conflict with a marital or business partner, for example, try having a purely emotional discussion and see how far it gets you. Then try having a conversation, not devoid of emotion, but one centered on facts, logic, assumptions and conclusions, and see how much better it goes, provided your discussion partner is using the same method.

Almost unknowingly, Schlosser appears to recognize that the slow death of reason, particularly in philosophy and the humanities, has led to a state of affairs where he, as a teacher, is frightened to death to speak his mind for fear of complaints, discipline or reprisal (which has already happened to him.) That’s how bad it has become. Yet he has no idea why; or perhaps he’d just rather not know.

Now consider another article entitled, “SURVEY: A bunch of Harvard students report they’ve had their feelings hurt,” appearing at thecollegefix.com on 5/29/15:

A recent survey of graduating seniors at Harvard University found that a large chunk of the class of 2015 has felt “marginalized” at the Ivy League institution because of their race, socioeconomic status or sexual orientation.

That is not to say they actually were marginalized, which is loosely defined as treating a person as insignificant, left out or brushed aside. But the survey respondents felt as though they had been.

“In a class that witnessed an often explosive national debate about racial discrimination, 24 percent of seniors said that they have felt marginalized because of their race or ethnicity while at Harvard, including 74 percent of black students, 40 percent of Latino students, and 54 percent of East Asian students,” the Crimson reported.

This is what happens when you’re trained to think of yourself primarily in terms of your racial or other group identity, rather than your individual identity. Harvard has done its intended job well. For decades now, humanities departments at universities have stressed the importance of acting, thinking and feeling on behalf of groups. These ideas have spread into primary and secondary schools.

When you view yourself primarily or exclusively as a member of a group, your individuality suffers, to that extent. Along with your individuality goes your self-esteem, your self-respect, and any can-do sense that, “My mind is capable of thinking independently,” because you have been told that your group identity — not your individual, reasoning, thinking mind — is what makes you who you are.

If these young people feel slighted or put out, it’s probably because they possess little or no means for developing their self-esteem. That’s because the only way to develop self-esteem and self-respect is through taking constructive actions that yield objectively positive results for your happiness, over the course of your life; and the only way to take these fulfilling steps is through learning how to think.

Reason is the bedrock of mental health, psychological stability or emotional serenity. Reason is also the bedrock of academics and science; or at least, it should be. If a college-aged student is too immature or unenlightened to figure this out, then we’re counting on their teachers at these high-priced, still highly regarded institutions of higher learning to tell them, and show them. If their teachers cannot or will not do so, then what’s to become of the society and civilization into which these young people enter?

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