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.

Safetyism

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.

Antifragile

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.

About Dave aka Mr. Math Teacher

Independent consultant and junior college adjunct instructor. Former secondary math teacher who taught math intervention, algebra 1, geometry, accelerated algebra 2, precalculus, honors precalculus, AP Calculus AB, and AP Statistics. Prior to teaching, I spent 25 years in high tech in engineering, marketing, sales and business development roles in the satellite communications, GPS, semiconductor, and wireless industries. I am awed by the potential in our nation's youth and I hope to instill in them the passion to improve our world at local, state, national, and global levels.
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