The Culture of Fear and the Invention of the Vulnerable Student

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Frank Furedi Roots & Wings Substack 28 February 2023

According to new report published by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, American teenagers are increasingly miserable, anxious and depressed and report ‘persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness. Typically, explanations for the so-called mental health crisis vary from blaming the social media, the atomisation of young people’s lives or secularisation. More superficial explanation claim that young people are made to feel anxious by the threat posed by the so-called climate emergency or the isolation experienced during the lockdown of the of the COVID emergency.

In contrast to the prevailing consensus, I argue in my books Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability In an Anxious Age that young people are both infantilised and turned into potential patients by the prevailing regime of socialisation in western societies. The mental health crisis is to a large extent a symptom if a regime of socialisation that frames young people’s normal existential problems as mental health issues. The socialisation 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. Concern with children’s emotions has had the effect of fostering a climate where many young people feel find it difficult to acquire the habit of independence and make the transition to forms of behaviour associated with the exercise of autonomy.

During recent decades parenting practices have become precautionary to the point of often restricting the freedom of children to explore the outdoors. Western parenting culture finds it difficult to encourage young people to take risks and develop the practices associated with independence and freedom. Precautionary parenting has reinforced young people’s dependence on adults. The intensification of child-rearing and parenting practices has contributed to the steady expansion of the phase of adolescence. In the social sciences the term ‘emerging adulthood’, which allegedly lasts between ages 18-25 seeks to capture this new pre-adult phase in people’s lives.

The expansion of parenting, which has inadvertently led to the cultivation of children’s dependence has run in parallel by the growth of a mood of precaution throughout society. The zeitgeist of risk aversion leading to the growing valuation of safety in wider society has had an important influence on the conduct of everyday life. Indeed, the prevailing mood of risk aversion has turned safety into a moral value. The transformation of safety into a moral value is particularly pervasive on university campuses. University students are increasingly perceived as vulnerable and campus culture encourages them to perceive themselves as powerless and fragile. Indeed on campuses the prevailing sentiments about human vulnerability and fragility have been turned a systematic doctrine of expansive victimisation.

Campuses Embrace The Culture of Fear

It was back in the mid-1990s when I started doing research on my publication, The Culture of Fear, that I first noted the dramatic tone with which campus safety was discussed. The use of the term, ‘campus safety’ communicated the impression that it was a unique stand-alone problem that afflicted higher education. The term and the rhetoric surrounding campus safety implied that academics and their students faced were faced with serious threats to their security. Naturally, it was worrying. I had no idea that being an academic could be such a dangerous profession. How on earth was I supposed to fit a can of pepper spray in my book-laden briefcase?

The problem of campus safety emerged almost unnoticed and its alarmist premise was rarely contested. When I raised my scepticism with colleagues regarding the alleged threats facing universities, they often responded by reciting a story about an unpleasant incident on another campus, that they had heard second-hand from someone whose name they could not remember. Soon, many administrators seized upon a narrative of campus safety. And judging by the statements and reports published within universities, it appeared that the culture of fear was more prevalent on campuses than in other domains of social life.

The origins of this concern with campus safety took form in the late 1970s. Until this point, the deliberations by higher education administrators on campus safety related to menial health and safety matters. But a shift of emphasis occurred in the late seventies, when concerns about campus safety were directed towards the immediate threat posed by intruders and criminals from outside the university. For example, the President’s Report to the Board of Regents of the University of Michigan reported in 1978 that ‘the intrusion of unauthorized non-University persons on the central campus and the problems resulting from these intrusions present the major security challenge faced’.

During the 1980s, anxieties about campus crime acquired a dynamic of their own. Whereas previously campus safety was associated with the external threat of intruders and criminals, during the 1980s anxieties were refocused around internal hazards. These new threats were far less likely to originate from outside the Ivory Tower than from within. The sources of fear were increasingly perceived as risks that emanated from within the academic community itself. Campaigns directed against alcohol consumption, sexual harassment, rape, bullying and racism focused attention at the actions and attitudes of students and academics. They criticised prevailing cultural norms on campuses and argued that they perpetrated a hostile environment to many members of the academic community. The external enemy was substituted for the enemy within.

Since the 1980s anxieties about campus crime have acquired a dynamic of its own. The invention of campus crime as a distinct stand-alone issue in the 1980s in the United States was followed by campaigns against harassment, racism and bullying. Alarmist accounts of the risks to student safety were paralleled by claims that campus life was intensely stressful for students and academics alike. By the turn of 21st century a consensus emerged that students were far less able to cope with life on campuses than previously thought and that they required more support and protection from university authorities. Calls for paternalistic management practices were often justified on the grounds that it was necessary to curb unsafe and unhealthy forms of behaviour such as excessive alcohol consumption, drug abuse, harassment and sexual violence. Rather than experimenting with dubiously priced spirits, today’s students are urged to go alcohol-free.

Advocates for expanding institutional protection for students did not confine their campaign to issues to do with physical security. Concern with violence and anti-social behaviour was paralleled by a rapidly accelerating anxiety about the mental health of the academic community.

The emphasis now was on the mental health and emotional well being of members of the academic community. Anxieties about the mental welfare of the academic community played an important role in the normalisation and legitimation of paternalistic practices on campus.

The discovery of the ‘vulnerable student’ played a critical role in the promotion of a paternalistic regime of safety. Today, the term ‘vulnerable students’ is used in everyday conversations both within and outside the university. But it is important to note that the very idea of a vulnerable student is a relatively recent one. Our search of the LexisNexis database of English language newspapers failed to find any references to ‘vulnerable students’ during the 1960s and the 1970s. There were 13 references to vulnerable students during the 1980s, of which seven referred to children in schools. The first reference to vulnerable university students appeared in The Times (London) was in 1986, The New York Times in 1991 and The Guardian in 1995. But as illustrated in the table below there was a significant increase in references to vulnerable students during the 1990s, and a veritable explosion of the term in the first decade of the 21st century.

References To Vulnerable Students in LexisNexis Data Base

1990-1995. 55 references

1995-2000. 127 references

2000-2005 385 references

2005-2010. 1136 references

During the year 2015-2016 there were 1407 references to this term. Even taking into account the likelihood that LexisNexis has expanded the sources cited in its database, the remarkable increase in allusions to the vulnerability of students provides a striking illustration of an important transformation of the way that university students are represented and perceived. The term vulnerability draws attention to a person’s weak coping mechanism and endows a student with the identity of fragility.

The discovery of the vulnerable student has played a significant role in turning hitherto unexceptional aspects of campus life into veritable objects of fear. The new consensus, that claims that students need to protected from feeling uncomfortable in class-rooms or from being offended by gestures and words is founded upon a growingly accepted account of student vulnerability. This sentiment was forcefully communicated by Neil Howe and William Strauss, in their Millennial go to College (2003), where they stated that unlike previous generations, the current cohort of students find it difficult to flourish in less structured environment of higher education.

Free speech sceptics frequently argue for regulating speech on the ground that it serves as a prophylactic against threats to the safety and security of vulnerable students. As far back as the early 1990s, advocates for the regulation of speech on campuses justified their stance on the ground that undergraduates were exceptionally fragile and vulnerable individuals who needed to be protected from psychological harm.

Whereas in the past it was widely acknowledged that universities were uniquely suited to the flourishing of free speech, some academics go so far as to argue that the threats posed by unregulated speech were far greater in higher education than in other domains of everyday life. Arguing in this vein, Professor of Law, Mari Matsuda asserted that universities constitute a ‘special case’ that requires protection from hateful and offensive speech. Why? Because according to Matsuda ‘the typical university student is emotionally vulnerable’. She added that ‘students are particularly dependent on the university for community, for intellectual development and self definition’.

In the Culture of Fear the dramatization of the threats confronting individual safety are often accompanied with the inflation of the meaning of harm and the deflation of the capacity of people to deal with risks to their security. This trend has acquired great influence over the conduct of formal and informal relations in campus life. Teachers are now regularly informed that they must watch the words they use and the readings they assign to their students in case it emotionally disturbs them. Even course work readings have become a focus of anxiety and concern. The growing practice of using trigger warnings – where students are alerted that a text may shock – indicates how the medicalising of reading has meshed with demands to regulate the curriculum.

But the language of fear is not confined to discussions of student vulnerability. Many academics and other university employees have internalised the anxieties and fears that dominates campus culture. One would imagine that compared to most institutions, the university is a relatively benign and comfortable place within which to work. But that’s not how things work in the culture of fear. ‘Academics “face higher mental health risk” than other professions’ is the headline of an article that contends that the ‘majority of people’ working in British universities find their job stressful.

But does it matter?

One of the sad consequences of the institutionalisation of campus safety related anxieties is that instead of realising its stated objectives it enhances a climate of insecurity. What began as a relatively confined focus on the emotional wellbeing of students is now framed in official accounts as a mental health epidemic. Reports compete with one another in their accounts of the gloomy conditions in colleges and universities. If all these reports were to be believed than racism is getting worse and misogyny is far more rife than previously suspected. Bullying and harassment is on the increase. With everything getting worse and very little getting better, it is not surprising that there is a constant demand for new measures designed to regulate and micro-manage life on campuses.

Sadly, a climate of fear is inhospitable to the cultivation of academic relationships and the pursuit of intellectual inquiry. Sometimes we unwittingly internalise a language that negates the very essence of academic inquiry. Take the growing stigma attached to the term ‘controversial speaker’. Once upon a time, controversy and debate was perceived as foundational to the workings of an academic community. In the current era many university administrators fear controversy to the point that they have designed policies to risk manage and sometimes ban controversial speakers altogether. Universities used to embrace the controversial speaker. Today, they are regarded as a risk that is best managed out of existence. The title of a Xavier University publication – ‘Controversial Speakers and Events: Strategies For Risk Management’ – is paradigmatic in this respect.

Suspicion towards external controversial speakers is paralleled by a climate of mistrust that prevails within many campuses. Arguably the most regrettable feature of the campus culture of fear is the toll it takes on human relations and the quality of our interactions. People watch their words and many academic colleagues tell me that they now self-censor. Safety concerns extend into the conduct of human relationships: academics are warned that it is unsafe to shut their office door when they talk to a student. And as relations between academics and students become less spontaneous and more formal, it alters its character. The psychic distancing of members of the academic community from one another is the unacceptable price we pay for our obsession with campus safety. Not only is open and free discussion the cornerstone of academic debate, but this climate of suspicion silences ideas before they have a chance to be aired. To thrive, the academic community needs to be just that: a community. Without the freedom to question, the suffocation of intellectual life is inevitable.

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Published by Nelle

I am interested in writing short stories for my pleasure and my family's but although I have published four family books I will not go down that path again but still want what I write out there so I will see how this goes

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