Such stories are becoming more prevalent today, with the rise of what are often referred to as “social-justice educators” in the classroom. These teachers are typically concerned with equity in education — how to reckon with the unequal distribution of resources and services to achieve equal educational outcomes across students. Many believe that education is intersectional: “We cannot talk about schools, without addressing race, class, gender, ability, sexuality, and politics, because education is a political act,” wrote Crystal Belle, a teacher-education director at Rutgers University–Newark. Their goal, as Belle put it, is to use “curriculum as a primary mechanism for making the world a more equitable place.”
This goal sounds nice. But too often in practice the perspectives of these teachers regarding race, class, gender, ability, sexuality, and politics take precedence in teaching and learning over eliciting and developing the worldviews of their students. Such teachers shield students from practices, ideas, or words that they perceive as harmful, and punish students who inflict harm.
Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, in their article and subsequent book The Coddling of the American Mind, call this “vindictive protectiveness.” According to Lukianoff and Haidt, vindictive protectiveness creates “a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.” Critical thinking encourages “students to question their own unexamined beliefs, as well as the received wisdom of those around them,” which sometimes leads to discomfort on the way to understanding but ultimately prepares them for civic engagement and professional life. Vindictive protectiveness, on the other hand, prepares young people “poorly for professional life, which often demands intellectual engagement with people and ideas one might find uncongenial or wrong.”