All posts by Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi is an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Kent in Canterbury. His What’s Happened To The University: A Sociological Exploration Of Its Infantilisation is published by Routledge.

How Non-Judgmentalism Undermines Education

Non-judgmentalism has emerged as one of the core values of higher education. Today’s college students have been educated to perceive their sense of personal security with being affirmed and not judged. Many advocates of safe spaces claim that not being judged is one of the main virtues of their institution.

One website advertising “20 Great Value Colleges with Safe Spaces” gives pride of place to Colorado Mesa University’s Safe Space Program. It “emphasizes the importance of creating non-judgmental and non-biased space for students to have an open platform about any prejudicial concerns they may be experiencing.” In other words, one of the major things they want to feel safe from is judgment.

The fact that not being judged is now perceived as a positive virtue that enhances the learning experience of students is a problem for anyone who takes seriously the ethos of a liberal university education. The discrediting and loss of human judgment, which has been historically linked to the making of moral and political choices and intellectual development is now estranging the university from humanist values and critical reflection.

The Fear of True Tolerance

Although non-judgmentalism is represented as an enlightened and liberal attitude towards the world, it is nothing of the sort. The unreflected judgments arrived at through stereotyping are merely manifestations of conformism and prejudice. But the valuation of non-judgmentalism possesses no inherent positive ethical qualities. The reluctance to judge may be a symptom of disinterest or even moral cowardice. Nowadays it is often brought about by a reluctance to offend or to confront difficult and embarrassing questions. Consequently, once a student signals that she is “uncomfortable” with a particular line of discussion, a sensitive teacher is expected to change the subject.

Campus advocates of non-judgmentalism have developed an entire vocabulary of euphemisms to avoid being unambiguous, clear and blunt in its statements. Terms like “inappropriate,” problematic,” “unwelcome” or “uncomfortable” self-consciously avoid making a moral judgment.

From a liberal humanist perspective, judgment is not simply an acceptable response to other people’s beliefs and behavior: it is a public duty. It is the act of judgment that a dialogue is established between an individual and others. Drawing on Kant’s Critique of Judgment, the philosopher Hannah Arendt writes, in Between Past and Future, of an “enlarged way of thinking, which as judgment knows how to transcend its own individual limitations.” According to current conventional prejudice, the act of judging confines the imagination and encourages narrow-mindedness. In fact, as Arendt contends, judging plays a central role in disclosing to individuals the nature of their public world: “judging is one, if not the most,

According to current conventional prejudice, the act of judging confines the imagination and encourages narrow-mindedness. In fact, as Arendt contends, judging plays a central role in disclosing to individuals the nature of their public world: “judging is one, if not the most, important activity in which this sharing-the-world-with-others comes to pass.” Judgment does not simply mean the dismissal of another person’s belief: ‘the power of judgment rests on a potential agreement with others.” This is one compelling reason why a democratic public sphere depends on judgment.

Non-Judgmentalism Undermines Education

The capacity and the willingness to judge is central to the vocation of an academic Indeed academic judgment lies at the heart of the university. The testing of ideas, the questioning of colleagues’ views and the pursuit of intellectual clarity require the freedom to judge. The very idea of academic freedom is underpinned by the recognition that the exercise of judgment can have no limits without compromising scholarship and its vocation. Within the context of an academic relationship students and faculty must be prepared to have their ideas and views judged by others. Attempts to evade judgment or to limit its exercise in an academic environment can only compromise the quality of higher education.

Why has the creative public act of judgment become culturally devalued? To some extent the devaluation of the act of judgment is influenced by intellectual currents that are both skeptical of knowledge claims and argue that everyone’s views ought to be respected. Such relativist currents often denounce people with strong views as “essentialists” and “fundamentalists.” A more important source for the devaluation of judgment is the influence of the belief that people lack the resilience to deal with criticism. This belief is widely advocated by so-called parenting experts and teachers of children in their early years of schooling. School teachers are trained to avoid explicit criticism of their pupils and to practice techniques that validate members of the classroom.

Such sentiments are based on the premise that perceives people as lacking the capacity to engage with disappointment and criticism. The sentiment that “criticism is violence’” has gained significant influence on campuses and amongst the cultural elites. Judgment is often portrayed as a form of psychic violence, especially if applied to children: the sociologist Richard Sennett echoes this sentiment when he writes of the “devastating implications of rendering judgment on someone’s future.”

Far too many educators confuse an act of judgment with an assault on an individual’s well-being. Yet the exercise of judgment is not directed towards demeaning an individual’s identity but towards assessing an individual’s ideas. Its aims to transcend the personal. In contrast, the ethos of non-judgmentalism perceives the act of judgment as directed at an individual’s identity and assumes that everything is personal. Its self-centered failure to distinguish the personal from non-personal concerns bears all the hallmarks of cultural narcissism.

Paradoxically, the association of judgmentalism with intolerant narrow-mindedness is the very opposite of reality. It is the advocates of non-judgmentalism who regard those who question their views as violators of their safe space and who are wary of engaging with views other than their own. Since respecting and validating each other’s views is a foundational principle governing interaction in a safe space it becomes difficult to seriously question and criticize. And institutions that seek to protect their members from the offense caused by the exercise of judgment have lost sight of the meaning of higher education.

Why Millennials Are So Fragile

I have stopped counting the number of times that an academic colleague reminds me that “undergraduates are not what they used to be.” In private conversations, a significant minority of academic teachers have raised the concern that the age-old distinction between school children and university students was fast losing its meaning.

Back in 2003, Neil Howe and William Strauss, the authors of the study Millennials Go to College, advanced the thesis that this generation is far less mature and resilient than previous ones. They noted that the millennial generation is far more “closely tied to their parents” than the students that preceded them, and they also insist on a “secure and regulated environment.”

Howe and Strauss concluded that as a result, students today find it difficult to flourish in the relatively unstructured environment of higher education. The assessment that the millennials find it more troublesome to make the transition to independent living on campuses than previous generations is widely held by educators on both sides of the Atlantic.

A report last September from Britain’s Higher Education Policy Institute said that the normal experiences of university life now constitute serious challenges to the well-being of the current cohort of students. It noted that “students are vulnerable” because in most cases they are living away from home for the first time. It also pointed to the new challenges they faced such as “a different method of learning” and “living with people they have never met before.”

Related: Should Colleges Coddle the Whiners?

One of the most significant and yet rarely analyzed developments in campus culture has been its infantilization.  Eric Posner, a leading legal scholar at the University of Chicago, declared that “students today are more like children than adults and need protection.” Posner contends that today’s university students are not ready for independence and require the moral guidance of their institutions.

In England, a group educators have criticized universities for treating their new students as if they were young adults. Sir Anthony Seldon, now head of Buckingham University, stated that ‘there is a belief among Vice Chancellors that young people are adults and can fend for themselves, but “18-year-olds today are a lot less robust and worldly wise.”

Most accounts of the unprecedented emotional fragility of university undergraduates claim that this development is the outcome of the expansion of student numbers. They suggest that many of these students come from diverse non-traditional backgrounds and lack the confidence and financial security of their more privileged predecessors. Catherine McAteer, the head of University College London’s student psychological services observed that the reason why a growing number of students require mental health support is because “students are now coming to university” who previously “would not have come.”

Some argue that first-generation students –undergraduates whose parents did not attend university – face unique problems attempting to fit into an alien, high-pressure environment. It is also asserted that since a significant proportion of first-generation students come from minority and socially deprived backgrounds they face a unique problem of adjusting to the traditional white middle- class campus environment.

Related: The New Age of Orthodoxy Overtakes the Campus

The principal problem faced by first-generation students is that their parents had little cultural capital to hand on to them and were, therefore, less prepared for university life than their more comfortably off peers. But unlike today, the problems they faced was not portrayed in psychological terms but in the language of culture and socio-economic deprivation.

Unfortunately, when first-generation students arrive on campus today, they are often treated as if they are likely to possess some emotional deficits. In the U.S. it is common for universities to organize special programs for integrating first-generation students. Diversity officers dealing with the first-generation often operate under the theory that this group faces a unique problem of being torn between family and university. They frequently contend that first-generation students suffer from guilt for leaving their family behind. The upshot of these theories is the belief that first-generation students need special dedicated psychological support.

Regrettably, the focus on psychology distracts attention from more constructive ways of preparing students from disadvantaged backgrounds to deal with the pressures of academic learning. The provision of academic support to help students gain intellectual confidence is probably the most useful way of helping students to make their way in the university.

Perversely the provision of psychological support as the default solution for helping first-generation students is likely to intensify their quest for validation. Instead of developing their power of resilience it may well heighten their sense of vulnerability. What universities need to do is not to cultivate the insecure identity of first-generation students but to provide them with the intellectual resources that will help them to gain confidence in their ability to achieve.

Related: Millennials Not Ready for the Job Market

In any case, it is far from evident if the link between emotional fragility and a student’s non-traditional background explains very much. Students from well-to-do backgrounds are no less likely than their poorer peers to talk the language of trauma and psychological distress. Indeed some of the most privileged campuses– Oxford, Cambridge, Yale, Berkeley, Oberlin – have been in the forefront of campaigns that focus attention to the emotional harms suffered by students from a variety of alleged causes.

The reason why the current generation appears to behave differently from their predecessor has little to do with their socio-economic background. Rather the sense of emotional fragility expressed by some undergraduates is the outcome of the prevailing ethos of socialization that treats young people as children.

The socialization of young people has become increasingly reliant on therapeutic techniques that have the perverse effect of encouraging children and youth to interpret existential problems as psychological ones. The concern with children’s emotions has fostered a climate where many young people are continually educated to understand the challenges they face through the language of mental health. Not surprisingly, they often feel find it difficult to acquire the habit of independence and make the transition to forms of behavior associated with the exercise of autonomy.

The complex emotional tensions that are integral to the process of growing up are now discussed as stressful events with which children and young people cannot be expected to cope. Yet is through dealing with such emotional upheavals that young people learn to manage risks and gain an understanding of their strengths and weaknesses. Instead of being encouraged to acquire an aspiration for independence, many youngsters are subject to influences that promote childish behavior. The infantilization of young people is the unintended outcome of parenting practices that rely on levels of support and supervision that are more suitable for much younger children.

The relations of dependence that are nurtured through these practices serve to prolong adolescence to the point that many young people in their 20s do not perceive themselves as adults. Whereas in the past infantilization was classically associated with the phenomenon of maternal overprotection, today the prolongation of adolescence is culturally sanctioned. In the case of universities, it is institutionally enforced.

Socialization through validation

The erosion of the line that divides secondary from higher education is a trend that contradicts the ethos of academic teaching and the vocation associated with it. In theory, the ideals associated with the university remain widely affirmed, but in practice, they are often tested by the introduction of conventions that were formerly confined to secondary education. The adoption of paternalistic practices and the wider tendency towards the infantilization of campus life can in part be understood as an outcome of the difficulties that society has encountered in the socialization of young people.

For some time now it has been evident that parents and schools have been struggling with the transmission of values and rules of behavior to young people. In part, this problem was caused by the lack confidence of older generations in the values into which it was socialized. More broadly, Western society has become estranged from the values that used to inspire it in the past and found it difficult to provide its adult members with a compelling narrative for socialization.

The hesitant and defensive manner with which the task of socialization is pursued has created a demand for new ways of influencing children. The growing remission of child protection and the widening of the territory for parenting activities can be interpreted as an attempt to develop new methods for guiding children.

Lack of clarity about the transmission of values has led to a search for alternatives. The adoption of the practices of behavior management serves as one influential approach towards solving the problem of socialization.  These psychological techniques of expert-directed behavior management have had an important influence on childrearing. From this standpoint, the role of parents is not so much to transmit values but to validate the feelings, attitudes and accomplishment of their children.

Though parents still do their best to transmit their beliefs and ideals to their children, there is a perceptible shift from instilling values to the provision of validation. Affirming children and raising their self-esteem is a project that is actively promoted by parents as well as schools. This emphasis on validation has run in tandem with the custom of a risk-averse regime of child-rearing. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has described this form of childrearing as that of “fearful parenting.” He claims that since the 1980s, children have been “protected as fragile,” which has the perverse consequence of undermining their capacity for resilience.

As I noted in my study, Paranoid Parenting, the (unintended) consequence of this regime of parenting has been to limit opportunities for the cultivation of independence and to extend the phase of dependence of young people on adult society. The extension of the phase of dependence is reinforced by the considerable difficulties that society has in providing young people with a persuasive account of what it means to be an adult. Instead of encouraging new undergraduates to embark on a life of independent study, universities have adopted a paternalistic ethos that treats them as biologically mature children. In this way, they have helped create a campus culture that discourages young people from embarking on the path to adulthood.