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Book Review: The Coddling of the American Mind

Date:02 November 2020
The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff & Jonathan Haidt
The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff & Jonathan Haidt

Book Review: Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. The Coddling of the American Mind. How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. New York, Penguin Press, 2018

By: Rie Bosman

It was just a small article in the newspaper on 9 March 2020: the British Minister for Education warned the University of Oxford that it must protect freedom of speech. If not, the government would intervene. This leading university is regularly discredited on account of students refusing to allow ‘controversial’ speakers, a practice known as no-platforming. The latest speaker to be rejected was Selina Todd, Professor of Modern History and involved in the feminist organization Woman’s Place UK, which is opposing proposed legislation to allow people to identify as men or women without medical substantiation. The main worry is that men may take advantage of the situation to gain access to women-only domains, such as women's toilets. This is why Todd’s planned visit was cancelled; the students branded her ‘transphobic’. It was another event in a series of recent no-platforming incidents; a conservative former-minister was banned from speaking just half-an-hour before she was due to begin, after objections from an international gender organization. And our own university caused commotion last year, after the announcement of an address by Paul Cliteur during the Night of Philosophy (Nacht van de Filosofie). A number of students (and lecturers) did not think that we should provide a stage for this ‘controversial speaker’, who is affiliated with the Dutch right-wing populist party Forum voor Democratie.

These examples of no-platforming fit in seamlessly with a series of shocking cases in the book The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. This book shows how prominent figures such as Madeleine Allbright (former US Ambassador to the United Nations under President Clinton) and Christine Lagarde (the first female managing director of the IMF and President of the ECB) were both denied a voice. The authors wonder how it is possible that students can demand protection from words and ideas that displease them or make them unhappy, in the name of ‘emotional wellbeing’. Why should speakers be refused a platform, or invitations to speak be revoked? Why do we need ‘trigger warnings’ for subjects that may be perceived as shocking in lectures or teaching material? Why is it no longer possible to handle certain subjects, why have certain words become taboo and why can we no longer ask certain questions? One person taking offence can be enough to launch a campaign of character assassination or actual violence, claim the authors. Mass media and social media are playing a prominent role in this.

Co-author Greg Lukianoff is a lawyer practising in the field of the First Amendment of the American constitution (which protects freedom of speech), and is President of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). The aim of this foundation is ‘to defend and sustain the individual rights of students and faculty members at America’s colleges and universities. These rights include freedom of speech, freedom of association, due process, legal equality, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience – the essential qualities of liberty.’ It's a mission that corresponds beautifully with the position adopted in this book, as will soon become evident. Jonathan Haidt, the other author, is a social psychologist and author of the book The Righteous Mind. Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012). Haidt worked for the University of Virginia for 16 years and is now a Professor of Ethical Leadership in New York. Lukianoff and Haidt met through their shared amazement and concern about what is happening in American colleges and, after a high-profile article in The Atlantic (2016), decided to write this book to raise questions about the state of mind of the current generation of students.

Good intentions, bad ideas

‘What is the aim of a university?’, asks Haidt in a widely watched TED talk. The aim is to search for truth, knowledge and enlightenment, he claims. So how come these aims are now being sacrificed at the altar of personal wellbeing and individual mollification? What is causing this, and what are the effects? The drift of their explanation can be found in the title of their book: The Coddling of the American Mind. How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. To coddle means to pamper, to indulge. But it also means to over-protect, to shield. With good intentions, but based on bad ideas. These bad ideas, or ‘great untruths’ as Lukianoff and Haidt call them, are the main thread throughout the book. Reasoning, explanations and examples that illustrate the hot-temperedness of the current generation of students are linked to the following three untruths:

  1. The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker
  2. The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings
  3. The Untruth of Us versus Them: Life is a Battle between Good People and Evil People

The first untruth is the most interesting: students are fragile and vulnerable, and must be protected to make them feel safe.

The authors proffer the term ‘antifragile’ to counter this premise. It was coined by the Lebanese-American writer Nassim Taleb in a book of the same name, with the sub-title: Things That Gain from Disorder (2012). ‘Antifragile’ is used to describe things that become stronger through resistance – take muscles and bones, which we test during workouts, or our immune system. But children are also ‘antifragile’: they need challenges, risks and resistance to help them grow and become strong. If they are denied resistance, they will become weaker instead. The book starts with a fantastic example. Haidt recounts how the introduction session at his son’s pre-school was dominated by the school’s radical no-nuts policy, put in place to protect children who were allergic to nuts. Nuts were prohibited, even for non-allergic children. Haidt then explored why nut allergies have become so prevalent since the turn of this century. He made a surprising discovery. In a cleverly constructed study of young children with a susceptibility to allergies, it turned out that the children who had not been allowed to eat nuts were significantly more allergic to nuts than the children who had eaten them. The limited exposure to nuts meant that the latter group had built up enough immunity to be able to enjoy nuts for the rest of their lives; the first group, i.e. the protected group, was constantly in danger of an unexpected allergic reaction. Their immune systems had not been given a chance to tolerate the valuable nut proteins. The conclusion of this research was that the increase in nut allergies was not a reason for avoiding nuts, but an effect of avoiding nuts. This is a perfect example of the ‘hygiene paradox’, the idea that increased hygiene has actually caused a steep rise in all kinds of allergies. But it is also a good example of ‘antifragility’: the children who ate nuts boosted their immune systems, while the children who were protected and denied nuts were actually weakening them. This is the essence of the arguments put forward by Lukianoff and Haidt. Applied to students, they see universities as mental gyms where students should be looking for challenges, learning to take knocks, a place where they become strong and resilient through trial and error. The diversity of ideas and constructive disagreements should replace the ‘bubbles’ that people retreat into with people of the same mind, and the political polarization that this nourishes.

Concept creep

The book is divided into four parts. The first part discusses the three untruths in great detail. The first untruth (‘What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker’) and the assumption of ‘fragility’ have led to the unbridled growth of something that the authors call ‘safetyism’: a culture of safety aimed at minimizing all risks. Safety does not mean physical safety, but emotional safety. The shift in the meaning of the word ‘safe’ is referred to as ‘concept creep’: terms shift, are stretched, gradually take on a different meaning. We find ‘concept creep’ in many areas, and in many terms; take the terms danger, trauma, pain or violence. These days, pain doesn't refer to a grazed knee or a broken collarbone, but a deeply felt mental injury that someone inflicts on you and which must be avoided at all costs. In this shifting of meaning, words can also be violent and painful, they can cause stress and be seen as ‘micro-aggressions’ – even if this was not the intention. ‘Impact’ (how it feels) is more important than ‘intent’ (how it was intended). According to the second untruth, you should ‘Always trust your feelings’. Identity politics and victimhood are examples of the third untruth: ‘Us versus Them’.

The second part of the book describes how American colleges put the three untruths into practice. It sometimes cities horrific incidents and practices reminiscent of a witch hunt. Be aware: this is about students who turn on their lecturers or a guest speaker who has been invited to give a talk. A lecturer can get into trouble for sending a polite email with the wrong wording, for giving a lecture about an uncomfortable subject, or for having an opinion that goes against the tide. The FIRE website also has an unsettling list of incidents. It is striking that university management neither protects nor stands up for its lecturers. On the contrary: the authors describe how managers help to silence or even fire professors who fall from grace.

The third part of the book is the most interesting and examines a number of explanations, under the title ‘How did we get there?’ I shall explore three of these six explanations in more detail: ‘Anxiety and Depression’, ‘Paranoid Parenting’ and ‘The Decline of Play’ (the other three are ‘The Polarisation Cycle’, ‘The Bureaucracy of Safetyism’ and ‘The Quest for Justice’).

Generation iGen

The chapter on anxiety and depression states that the generation born between 1995 and 2012 – dubbed iGen – shows significantly higher percentages of anxiety and depression. This is particularly true of girls, for whom the suicide rate is double that of boys. Psychologist Jean Twenge, who first used the name iGen, thinks the main cause is their intensive use of smart phones and social media. Girls are more sensitive than boys to the effect of these media, due to processes of social comparison and fear of being excluded. Twenge also shows how intensive and prolonged ‘screen time’ among young people turns them into slower adults. ‘Human beings are an ultrasocial species’, write Lukianoff and Haidt, and screens keep them away from other human beings. The arrival at university of these students from generation iGen, with their higher rate of anxiety and depression, lines up exactly with the culture of ‘safetyism’: they crave safety and protection.

In the next chapter, entitled ‘Paranoid Parenting’, the authors claim that we are actually harming our children by over-protecting them. In the same way as in the story of the nuts and the allergic reaction, children in generation iGen are being robbed of the opportunity to develop into strong, competent, independent adults. Because although children these days grow up more safely than ever before in absolute terms, parents are so terrified of relatively uncommon but widely reported cases of kidnapping (or worse) that they never let their children out of their sight and try to prevent or manage every single risk. The conclusion of a study advisor from Wageningen University & Research supports the idea that this is not just an American phenomenon; she sees ‘young people who only learn how to solve problems once they go to university, because until then, their parents have swept everything that is unpleasant under the carpet’ (de Volkskrant, 11 March 2020). Lukianoff and Haidt claim that universities are, in fact, taking the baton from ‘paranoid parents’ by providing a culture of ‘safetyism’ and over-protection. This is often endorsed by the fact that managers at American universities in particular see students as customers and don’t want to step on any toes. This means no guest speakers who say things that their customers don’t want to hear.

The chapter on ‘The Decline of Play’ describes how the children of the above-mentioned helicopter parents are barely ever allowed to play out of doors without adult supervision. Play is an evolutionary necessity. It is vital to children, not only for their physical development, but also so that they can develop social competencies such as resilience, frustration tolerance, conflict management and even citizenship skills. But although the actual dangers and risks to children have diminished over the past decades, parents still do not leave them alone for a minute. Social norms, and even legal stipulations, endorse this behaviour. The time that children don’t spend playing outside is not always spent on smart phones and video games. As soon as they start at nursery, they become bogged down in what Lukianoff and Haidt call the ‘arms race’: gaining access to a university, preferably an elite university. This is particularly true of children from middle-class backgrounds, whose parents favour a child-raising pattern of ‘concerted cultivation’. The huge pressure that this competition puts on children has not only put an end to all thoughts of play, but is also adding to the previously-mentioned anxiety and depressive disorders. 

Prepare the child for the road

In the fourth part of the book, Lukianoff and Haidt discuss how we could wise up. They make several recommendations from the perspective of students, universities and society as a whole. The authors add their own special adage: ‘Prepare the Child for the Road, not the Road for the Child’. One of the more interesting suggestions is that children should use their ‘gap year’ (between leaving school and starting university) to work in the service industry and grow up, rather than travelling the world. In turn, universities must start taking their original goals more seriously again. This means searching for the truth, and actively, or even passionately, promoting academic freedom.

The Coddling of the American Mind is a rich book. It merits much more than a paltry description in give or take 2,500 words. It is also a valuable book. This is, of course, largely because of the subject: the importance of upbringing, the importance of knowledge and contradiction, the importance of universities and the importance of democracy. But the other thing that makes this book so interesting and so easy to read is the way that it has been planned and written. Lukianoff and Haidt are academics who trained and work at universities. They know their fields like the back of their hand, are cognisant of all the relevant research, are theoretically and empirically convincing and know how to present their subject in a straightforward manner. At the same time, they have both feet firmly planted in the professional field and the societal domain. The book is brimming with interesting observations, concepts, analyses, mechanisms and arguments. But it also contains quotes from personal conversations, personal experiences and introspection – some of a very intimate nature. Greg Lukianoff writes openly about his struggles with depression, and how cognitive behavioural therapy helped him to overcome his demons. Both authors are advocates of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). It is, to their minds, the only therapy that has proved to be effective for cognitive disorders. In line with their book, the effects of CBT reside in regulated exposure to the stimuli and experiences that people fear, not in avoiding them!

The tone of the book is respectful, not judgemental. The authors’ main aim is to understand and explain. Even when describing the very worst extremes, the overriding feeling is their surprise and astonishment: why is this happening? How can we explain and change it? The story that they tell is convincing, and I would thoroughly recommend this book. This is what sociology is all about.

Rie Bosman is an educational sociologist and lecturer in the Department of Sociology. She is also the secretary of the Netherlands Association for Sociology (Nederlands Sociologische Vereniging; NSV).

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