The Coddling of the American Mind | Book Review

“This is a book about wisdom and its opposite,” write Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in The Coddling of the American Mind. “It is a book about three psychological principles and about what happens to young people when parents and educators—acting with the best of intentions—implement policies that are inconsistent with those principles.” In my opinion, it is also a book every American concerned with the future of our nation’s public discourse and democratic culture should read.

And yes, I am serious about that.

The Coddling of the American Mind grew out of the increased support among college students for censorship of controversial opinions, a trend that Lukianoff began to notice in the fall of 2013. Lukianoff is president and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a leading advocate for free speech on college and university campuses. In his experience, until that time, the leading advocates for censorship had been college administrators. What was driving the rapid rise of support for censorship among students?

For much of his life, Lukianoff had suffered clinical depression, even contemplating suicide in late 2007. In 2008, he underwent cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a form of psychotherapy that identifies distorted patterns of thinking that often underlie depression and anxiety, and this helped him tremendously. As Lukianoff interacted with students, he noticed that the way they reasoned about controversial issues often mirrored the same cognitive distortions CBT teaches people to control.

This insight led to a conversation with Haidt, a social psychologist, Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business, and author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. That conversation led to a feature story in the September 2015 issue of The Atlantic. The book builds out the article’s core thesis.

Lukianoff and Haidt unfold their argument in three parts: Part I, “Three Bad Ideas,” looks at “three Great 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 Battled Between Good People and Evil People

Taken together, these untruths result in “a culture of safetyism” on campus, whereby students must be protected from opposing opinions that might “harm” their “safety,” no longer defined as physical safety but now as emotional safety too.

The results of this culture of safetyism, ironically enough, are intimidation and violence on the one hand and witch hunts on the other, as the Lukianoff and Haidt argue in Part II, “Bad Ideas in Action.”

They cite the February 1, 2017, anti-Milo Yiannopoulos riot at the University of California at Berkeley as an example of the former, though there are many such examples scattered throughout the book. But the threats of violence are not merely coming from leftwing Antifa activists on campus. The authors point to alt-right off-campus provocation as well, specifically the neo-Nazi march through the University of Virginia’s campus on August 11, 2017. The confrontation between protesters and counterprotesters the next day resulted in the vehicular murder of Heather Heyer by an alt-right driver.

Lukianoff and Haidt cite several examples of academic witch hunts conducted against professors who utter heterodox ideas, even if they are liberal or leftwing. Prof. Bret Weinstein’s protest of the “Day of Absence” at Evergreen State College in Washington is a leading example of this. The school is quite liberal, as is Weinstein. On its annual Day of Absence, minority faculty students had since the 1970s gone off campus to make their absence, and hence contributions, palpable. But in 2017, organizers of the event asked white faculty and students not to show up. Weinstein thought this went too far and was subjected to vicious protests for saying so.

As these events illustrate, college and university campuses, which are supposed to be beacons of free speech, have instead in many cases become their opposite. There is no one-size-fits-all explanation for why this has happened, but in Part III, “How Did We Get Here?,” Lukianoff and Haidt identify “six interacting explanatory threads”:

“rising political polarization and cross-part animosity; rising levels of teen anxiety and depression; changes in parenting practices; the decline of free play; the growth of campus bureaucracy; and a rising passion for justice in response to major national events, combined with changing ideas about what justice requires.”

This may be the most interesting part of the book, rich in social scientific detail and fair-minded in its analysis. As the parent of three elementary-age children, the chapters on “Paranoid Parenting” and “The Decline of Free Play” were thought-provoking and helpful.

Part IV, “Wising Up,” builds on the analysis of the previous chapters and suggests a way forward for making “Wiser Kids,” “Wiser Universities,” and “Wiser Societies,” as the titles of the three chapters indicate. A table on page 263 summarizes the argument of the entire book, so I’ll reproduce it here:

Young people are antifragile. Prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child. What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.
We are all prone to emotional reasoning and the confirmation bias. Your worst enemy cannot harm you as much as your own thoughts, unguarded. But once mastered, no one can help you as much, not even your father or your mother. Always trust your feelings.
We are all prone to dichotomous thinking and tribalism. The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. Life is battle between good people and evil people.

As I mentioned at the outset of this review, I am serious when I say that every American concerned with the future of our nation’s public discourse and democratic culture should read The Coddling of the American Mind. It stimulated my thinking as a parent and helped form a better opinion of contemporary events as a concerned citizen. As a person, it provided an accessible introduction to cognitive behavioral therapy, identifying the cognitive distortions that misshape our opinions and hence misguide our actions. And it reminded me that people across the aisle from me—politically and religiously—are also intelligent and public-minded and can have things to say I need to hear.

So, buy this book. Read it. Then share it.

Book Reviewed
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).

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my review page.

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