Bob Jensen critiques “The Coddling of the American Mind”

photo of Prof. Robert Jensen

Robert Jensen

Bob Jensen, a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas, a founding board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center, and a member of the board of Culture Reframed, spoke at the March 5, 2016 meeting of Common Ground for Texans.  He was asked to respond to a recent article, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” published in the September 2015 issue of The Atlantic.  According to the article:

A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.  Two terms have risen quickly from obscurity into common campus parlance.  Micro-aggressions are small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless.  Trigger warnings are alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response.

Dr. Jensen challenged the framing and ideology of the Atlantic article, and of the dominant culture, by suggesting a better title: “The Coddling of the Capitalist, White-Supremacist, Patriarchal American Mind.”  He agrees that educators are right to be concerned about non-rational or anti-intellectual factors that can shut down the conversation in a classroom; emotion and politics can impede open inquiry.  He prefers to define political correctness as “a narrowing of the scope of inquiry, especially to avoid certain controversial ideas out of a fear of offending someone, falling out of step with peers, or being disciplined by authorities.”  He postulates that there are two academic units on most campuses where political correctness severely limits students and undermines the quality of intellectual work: business schools and economics departments, where he finds little or no outright challenges to or critiques of capitalism.

Dr. Jensen concludes that micro-aggressions are real and often have a negative effect on students, though there is considerable individual variation in non-white students’ reactions.  Dr. Jensen suggests that, in matters of race, micro-aggressions are a product of white supremacy.  He gives several examples to illustrate this point.

Finally he addresses the intersection of campus politics with gender concerns.  The mental health of rape survivors was one of the first concerns that gave rise to trigger warnings on college campuses.  In addition to rape there is “sexual intrusions,” sexual acts that women and girls do not request and do not want but experience regularly— sexually corrosive messages and calls, sexual taunting on the streets, sexual harassment in schools and workplaces, coercive sexual pressure in dating, sexual assault, and violence that is sexualized.

This sexual intrusion requires us to confront patriarchy, the system of institutionalized male dominance, in which men continue to use sex and violence to control women, a strategy.

Dr. Jensen concludes:

So, my remarks today are not intended to ignore the difficult struggles on campuses over questions of intellectual openness and honesty. When does merely offensive speech become oppressive? When should one person’s freedom of expression, no matter how offensive, be defended, and when does a pattern of abusive expression clearly undermine the ability of others to participate fully in a classroom discussion? How do we encourage challenges to widely accepted theories and doctrines? How do we model civil, respectful intellectual debate when those debates are not merely academic but have serious effects on participants in the debate? When should we offer students some kind of shield from the corrosive aspects of contemporary culture and when is it important for all of us to face the worst of the culture?

My remarks are intended to suggest that any discussion of how to approach these issues should first contend with the systems and structures of power that create the hierarchy, inequality, and violence at the heart of these struggles. After nearly three decades in academic life, I am more aware than ever of how difficult it is to resolve these questions and how easy it is for all of us to feel overly confident about our own conclusions. Still, I am confident in asserting that crafting intellectually defensible policies requires us to never stray too far from the reality of those systems and structures of power.

This posting is only a small slice of Dr. Jensen’s remarks.  He was kind enough to put his words down on paper.  I encourage you to read his provocative article and compare his remarks with those of Jonathan Haidt, the author of the Atlantic article.

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