Back in my day, Yale’s colleges had squash courts, pool rooms, wood shops, and not uncommonly print shops in which undergraduates could produce hand-printed limited edition books. Today’s Yalies go to therapy and play in sand boxes.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, before shelter-in-place orders, there was the campus safe space. Students claimed that they needed protection from perceived threats to their emotional well-being. College administrators were only too happy to comply, building up a vast edifice of services to respond to studentsâ€™ alleged emotional trauma. Last year, Yale University created a safe space that will set the industry standard for years to come. Call it the college woke spa, though its official title is the Good Life Center. Featuring a sandbox, essential oils, massage, and mental-health workshops, the center unites the most powerful forces in higher education today: the feminization of the university, therapeutic culture, identity politics, and the vast student-services bureaucracy. While other colleges may not yet have created as richly endowed a therapeutic space as the Good Life Center, theyâ€™re all being transformed by the currents that gave it birth, currents visible even in the reaction to the coronavirus outbreak.
â€œI donâ€™t know anyone [at Yale] who hasnâ€™t had therapy. Itâ€™s a big culture on campus,â€ says a rosy-cheeked undergraduate in a pink sweatshirt. She is nestled in a couch in the subsidized coffee shop adjacent to Yaleâ€™s Good Life Center, where students can sip sustainably sourced espresso and $3 tea lattes. â€œNinety percent of the people I know have at least tried.â€ For every 20 of her friends, this sophomore estimates, four have bipolar disorderâ€”as does she, she says.
Another young woman scanning her computer at a sunlit table in the cafÃ© says that all her friends â€œstruggle with mental health here. We talk a lot about therapy approaches to improve our mental health versus how much is out of your control, like hormonal imbalances.â€ Yaleâ€™s dorm counselors readily refer freshmen to treatment, she says, because most have been in treatment themselves. Indeed, they are selected because they have had an â€œadversity experienceâ€ at Yale, she asserts.
Such voices represent what is universally deemed a mental-health crisis on college campuses. More than one in three students report having a mental-health disorder. Student use of therapy nationally rose almost 40 percent from 2009 to 2015, while enrollment increased by only 5 percent, according to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Pennsylvania State University. At smaller colleges, 40 percent or more of the student body has gone for treatment; at Yale, over 50 percent of undergraduates seek therapy.
Yale psychology professor Laurie Santos created the Good Life Center in response to this alleged mental-health crisis. She had just taught what is billed as the most popular course in Yaleâ€™s history: â€œPsychology and the Good Life,â€ which aimed to arm students with â€œscientifically validatedâ€ techniques for overcoming emotional distress and â€œliving a more satisfying life.â€ The course presented the findings of positive psychology, a recent subfield that examines what makes humans happy, rather than what makes them miserable. â€œPsychology and the Good Lifeâ€ was not just a disinterested overview, however; it was a semester-long exercise in self-help. Students were assigned better mental-health practicesâ€”getting more sleep one week, exercising a few minutes a day another; meditating during the next week, keeping a gratitude journal the following week. For the final exam, students designed their own personalized self-help: the â€œHack Yoâ€™Self Project.â€
The courseâ€™s target audience was, by its own account, in desperate need of emotional rescue. â€œA lot of us are anxious, stressed, unhappy, numb,â€ a female freshman told the New York Times. â€œThe fact that a class like this has such large interest speaks to how tired students are of numbing their emotionsâ€”both positive and negativeâ€”so they can focus on their work, the next step, the next accomplishment.â€ The size of the turnout itself was therapeutic: â€œBeing able to see that an entire giant concert hall full of people is struggling alongside you is huge,â€ another student told the Yale Daily News. Apparently, being a Yale student was a massive burdenâ€”something that would have astounded Yaleâ€™s legendary teachers, such as art historian Vincent Scully and literary critic Harold Bloom, who conveyed to students the excitement they should feel before the lure of beauty and knowledge.
The questions of what leads to happiness and how we should conduct our lives have deep philosophical roots in the West, stretching back to the pre-Socratics. The Stoics and Epicureans sought to inculcate in their followers a mental outlook that would steel them against fate and the fear of death. Only a virtuous life, growing out of settled habits of character, the ancients counseled, led to happiness. Aristotle posited that the use of reason to attain truth would bring fulfillment, since reason was manâ€™s highest faculty and truth was the telos of human existence.
The syllabus for â€œPsychology and the Good Lifeâ€ contained no hint of this rich tradition. Instead, it was relentlessly presentist, consisting of online TED talks, news articles on positive psychology, lecture videos from other psychology courses, short research papers, and chapters from recent nonfiction books, like Cass Sunstein and Richard Thalerâ€™s Nudge. The final recommended reading was Dr. Seussâ€™s Oh, the Places Youâ€™ll Go. To get students â€œpumpedâ€ for each lecture, Santos played the Black-Eyed Peasâ€™ â€œI Gotta Feelingâ€ (â€œI gotta feeling, that tonight, that tonight / That tonightâ€™s gonna be a good, good, good, good, good / Good, good, good, good, good, good, good, good, good, goodâ€). Platoâ€™s Symposium this wasnâ€™t.
Nearly a quarter of Yaleâ€™s undergraduates signed up for â€œPsychology and the Good Life,â€ whose popularity may have been boosted by rumors of undemanding grading expectations. Courses that met at the same time experienced a sharp drop in enrollment. A decision was taken not to reoffer the â€œGood Lifeâ€ course. As it happened, however, Santos had precious real estate at her disposal, since she leads Silliman College, one of Yaleâ€™s 14 undergraduate residential communities. So she converted four rooms at the top of a landing in Silliman into the Good Life Center, to â€œpromote a campus culture that values wellness as a community responsibility,â€ as the centerâ€™s mission statement reads. Or, in less bureaucratic terms, to â€œspread good vibes,â€ as the GLC website puts it. …
Here, in a nutshell, is the essence of the college woke spa: an aesthetic and worldview built predominantly around what have been largely female interests, concerns, and fears. The GLCâ€™s self-esteem bromides, the self-compassion ethic, the yoga and mindfulness sessionsâ€”all would be at home in a Beverly Hills â€œhealing space,â€ where trophy wives can â€œcenter themselves in an atmosphere of calm.â€ A visitor keeps expecting to encounter crystals and star charts. …
Underneath the essential oils and yoga mats, the woke spa mental-wellness crusade is accomplishing an even more profound transformation of university life. The assumption that emotional threat and danger lie just beyond the spa is the product of an increasingly female-dominated student body, faculty, and administration. That assumption is undermining traditional academic values of rational discourse, argumentation, and free speech.
RTWT and weep.