Microaggressions: The Shift from Intent to Impact

Chapter 2 of Lukianoff’s and Haidt’s “The Coddling of the American Mind” highlights the recent trend at colleges to accept students’ assertions that emotional reasoning is as valid as intellectual reasoning. I’ve seen this applied by many high school students, parents, and admins.

With this trend, the oft used phrase “perception is reality” comes to mind; it is often used to validate someone’s interpretations of events even though the perception may not align with reality at all as is discussed in the online Scientific American article: Looks Can Deceive: Why Perception and Reality Don’t Always Match Up.

Our conscious perception of the world, though relatively stable, is not static. We are incapable of being fully objective, even in our most mundane observations and impressions. Our awareness of the objects around us is informed and fine-tuned by any number of transient factors—our strength and energy levels, our sense of confidence, our fears and desires. Being human means seeing the world through your own, constantly shifting, lens.


According to Lukianoff and Haidt, the term microaggressions, popularized and defined by a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College in 2007, encompasses “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color;” they go on to state that the term is now applied much more broadly than in its initial usage.

The authors highlight that the professor’s inclusion of “unintentional” slights that are defined “entirely in terms of the listener’s interpretation” encouraged misperceptions that may grossly exaggerate the impact of the perceived slight. I experienced multiple moments where parents complained directly to administrators excluding me in their correspondence or meetings where parents simply amplified, and distorted, their child’s perception. For nearly 100% of these incidents, students were aghast that I encouraged them to rise to the challenges facing them rather than rescuing them at every instance.

I will provide specific examples of these incidents in time, however, detailing their complexity takes an enormous amount of time and effort. Hence, for now, please believe that the John Dewey quote that’s been on my website’s banner since 2010, and my blog’s focus and tone, reflects my sincere desire to help all students. It’s just that as a result of my five plus decades of life experiences, both good and bad, I’ve developed a keen sense for what students need to experience about how to learn in order for them to succeed at their highest potential. And it is not by quietly and dutifully writing down what a teacher writes on a white board for subsequent regurgitation.

“Felt” Impact versus Actual Intent

Sadly, we’ve moved from assuming the best of intentions to allowing our feelings to lead us to react negatively to a perceived threat irrespective of whether there is any intent to cause harm.

If a member of an an identity group feels offended or oppressed by the action of another person, then according to the impact-versus-intent paradigm, that other person is guilty of bigotry.

My experiences these past seven plus years teaching high school students are filled with times where students and their parents cast me as a microaggressor when I held students to high expectations behaviorally and academically. Oftentimes it seemed that they were shocked that I did not meet their expectations, as set by math teachers inexperienced with teaching much more than procedural fluency or beaten down by the torrent of complaints that follow from raising expectations. I refused to lower my standards or expectations.

Instead, I invested incredible amounts of time, effort, and expense developing online supplemental resources for all of my courses. While I succeeded in a variety of ways, and scores of students have emailed me from college thanking me for being one of the few teachers, if not the sole teacher, who truly prepared them for the rigors of college mathematics and science courses, doing so in the face of what seemed to be an incessant stream of opposition took too much of a toll on me.

Also, it seemed as if I was a lone voice in the wilderness regarding raising standards and expectations. More emphasis seemed to be placed on how students felt than whether they learned. And meaningful challenge of near any sort fell by the wayside.

Teaching students to use the least generous interpretations possible is likely to engender precisely the feelings of marginalization and oppression that almost everyone wants to eliminate. And to add injury to insult, this sort of environment is likely to foster an external locus of control.

Ironically, all of my efforts centered on getting students to recognize their agency, voice, and ownership in their learning, which would better prepare them to succeed in the course and afterwards. Many students got it in time. However, a vocal minority with their abhorrence of my methods, either rejected it either outright or accepted it disdainfully, both of which choices minimized their growth opportunity and ability to endure in the face of true adversity.

A great deal of research shows that having an internal locus of control leads to greater health, happiness, effort expanded, success in school, and success at work. An internal locus of control has even been found to make many kinds of adversity less painful.

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The Rise of Safetyism: When Student Perception Rules

In chapter 1 of their book, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” Lukianoff and Haidt describe a plausible rationale for the shift, and increased emphasis, by college students towards defending their sense of safety on college campuses beyond the physical domain into the emotional. As a former high school teacher, I sensed an overemphasis on feelings by students and parents alike. Oftentimes students and parents reacted quite defensively and emotionally to what I believed were benign comments or experiences in my classroom. Over time, I will describe a variety of these moments as vignettes for further reflection and discussion.

For now, let’s consider two terms used by the authors: safetyism and antifragile.


The authors’ definition for safetyism follows.

“Safetyism” refers to a culture or belief system in which safety has become a sacred value, which means that people become unwilling to make trade-offs demanded by other practical and moral concerns. “Safety” trumps everything else, no matter how unlikely or trivial the potential danger. (emphasis added)

In my experience, especially of late, safetyism seemed to top students’ expectations in class over everything else-. While physical safety is crucial, it is easily recognized and its extent can be measured. On the other hand, emotional safety is much more vague, situational, and difficult to measure. Furthermore, on the emotional safety front, perception seems to be given much more credence and emphasis than intent. Hence, the burden for one or more students deciding that they are “emotionally safe” in the classroom today is disproportionately placed on the sender, not the receiver of communications. While both share responsibility in the exchange of information, when a receiver believes that their threat determination threshold is appropriate, however far it may be from the sender’s belief, we end up in a race to the bottom where nearly any statement may trigger a perception that someone is under an emotional attack.


Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of “The Black Swan” and “Antifragile,” coined the term antifragile in his book of the same name. In it, he distinguishes something’s survivability as being either: fragile, resilient, or antifragile. Taleb defines the term antifragile as requiring “stressors and challenges in order to learn, adapt, and grow.”

Lukianoff and Haidt state the following, which as an engineer sounds very reasonable. In some ways, I suspect it makes sense to many of us intuitively.

“Systems that are antifragile become rigid, weak, and inefficient when nothing challenges them or pushes them to respond vigorously. [Taleb] notes that muscles, bones, and children are antifragile.”

More poignantly, the authors paraphrase Taleb as he mentions that “wind extinguishes a candle but energizes a fire.” Taleb goes on to advise that neither adults nor their children should act as if we were candles: “You want to be the fire and wish for the wind.” As a teacher, I’ve tried the old adage of lighting a fire within a student. Unfortunately, many react horrifically to my efforts as if they believe they will be horribly burned in the process. Fortunately, over time, some of my students’ efforts burned brightly as they embraced the need to own their learning.

The authors also point out that in his first book, “The Black Swan,” Taleb argues that our risk averse nature is problematic. While game theory, decision trees, and Monte Carlo simulations permit us to conduct risk assessment analyses and to develop associated risk mitigation strategies, the complexity of human interactions makes it nigh impossible to do so in the most controlled environment much less in a dynamic classroom unless a teacher uses a near scripted curriculum presented in a milquetoast manner. I’ve experienced significant pushback from students who experience my discussion-centric pedagogy, which incorporates elements of The Socratic Method.

“In complex systems, it is virtually inevitable that unforeseen problems will arise, yet we persist in trying to calculate risk based on past experiences.”

Student Perception Rules

In their book, the authors highlight Jean Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University, who notes that members of iGen, those born in and after 1995, also known as Generation Z, are “obsessed with safety,” which includes “emotional safety” in their minds. They go on to state that the latter belief allows them to seek protection from ”people who disagree with you.”

This is not to imply that students are to be blamed for this behavior. They have been acculturated to think this way. Parents tend to reinforce their child’s perception as they seek first to comfort their child often independent of any fact finding as the child’s version of events is taken as gospel. In their desire to protect their child, parents inadvertently harm their children by limiting their potential to learn how to handle even the most benign of stressors.

“We are not blaming iGen. Rather, we are proposing that today’s college students were raised by parents and teachers who had children’s best interests at heart but who often did not give them the freedom to develop their antifragility.

Safetyism deprives young people of the experiences that their antifragile minds need, thereby making them more fragile, anxious, and prone to seeing themselves as victims.”

The Road Less Travelled

Lukianoff and Haidt also refer to the saying: Prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child similarly to my earlier post with a similar name. I can’t but help think that my experiences and observations as a secondary mathematics teacher align surprisingly well with these authors. I’m intrigued to read further.

If we protect each children from various classes of potentially upsetting experiences, we make it far more likely that those children will be unable to cope with such events when they leave our protective umbrella.

When children are raised in a culture of safetyism, which teaches them to stay “emotionally safe” while protecting them from every imaginable danger, it may set up a feedback loop: kids become more fragile and less resilient, which signals to adults that they need more protection, which makes them even more fragile and less resilient.

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The Coddling of the American Mind

I just started reading “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.” After reading the introduction, I want to share a couple of quotes and an excerpt that resonates with me.

While the following quotes primarily focus on college students, I sense that they, and much of the book, may apply to high school students and their parents as well. In fact, my primary premise as a teacher is that the difficulties many students face today derive from the well-intentioned, but misguided efforts of their parents. In other words, and ironically, my peer group unintentionally harms their children as they seek to help them. I firmly do not believe that is their intent. However, until they recognize the potential for their actions to cause harm, the damage will continue to be wrought.

All students must be prepared for the world they will face after college, and those who are making the largest jump – the ones most in danger of feeling like strangers in a strange land — are the ones who must learn fastest and prepare hardest. The playing field is not level; life is not fair.

…adults are doing far more these days to protect children, and their overreach might be having some negative effects.

One of the reasons I became a high school teacher was the desire to help students ready themselves for the rigors of college. When I entered college in the fall of 1982, I realized quickly that the academic intensity in my courses, especially in mathematics and science, significantly surpassed that of high school. Students in my college were responsible for reading course content and completing assigned homework BEFORE a topic was addressed in class. Sylvanus Thayer pioneered this method at the United States Military Academy at West Point over 200 years ago. Learning this way became a blessing, and an integral element in my success in life but at the time it felt like a curse. Had I been sheltered from that demanding and sometimes overwhelming experience, I would not have obtained my bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering, of that I am sure.

The authors list three ideas to be “happier, healthier, stronger, and more likely to succeed in pursuing your own goals.”

  • Seek out challenges, rather than eliminating or avoiding everything that “feels unsafe,”
  • Free yourself from cognitive distortions, rather than always trusting your initial feelings, and
  • Take a generous view of other people, and look for nuance, rather than assuming the worst about people within a simplistic us-versus-them morality.

As a parent of two boys ages 16 and 20, a former secondary mathematics teacher, a successful tech professional, and a graduate of three post-secondary institutions, I believe these are fine ideas.

I plan to share more of my thoughts from my reading of this book over time.

The Coddling of the American Mind

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