Review: The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff

Coddling of the American Mind
by Dan Burton

One of my favorite aspects of my job is the opportunity to work with interns during the Utah legislative session. We usually hire several interns from the colleges and universities across the state, and they help us during the state legislative session as we track legislation and communicate with staff and legislators. They are all bright, capable, and intelligent.
I don’t necessarily think college is for everyone, but for me, getting accepted and then going off to college was akin to receiving my letter to Hogwarts and boarding the train at Platform 9 and 3/4. I took courses from across the academic spectrum (a decision that cost me money and time, but that I mostly don’t regret…), and argued with professors and students of all political stripes.

As someone who empathized with our second president (who, according to historian John Ellis, found that his “favorite form of conversation was an argument”), the debate and discussion and the milieu of ideas were all elements of the university that were incredibly stimulating to me. I don’t think my experience was unique. I think this exposure to ideas, discussion, and debate is a feature, not a flaw, of the university system.

The word is that, at least on some campuses, things have changed. It’s been over a decade and a half since I graduated, so I can’t speak from personal experience, the news seems to be filling with examples of colleges and universities where administrations and student bodies are more concerned about making students comfortable and less with exposing them to a variety of ideas. From safe spaces and cry rooms to students shouting down professors and speakers they don’t agree with (or, more likely, don’t understand), universities have changed and almost overnight. Instead of challenging students and teaching them to think, many appear to have become extended cradles of comfort and conformity.

It has many scratching their heads and wondering what is happening.

In their book “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions And Bad Ideas Are Setting Up A Generation for Failure,” Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt grapple with the problem. They describe what they are seeing, a series of potential explanations, and what they think Americans—parents, educators, and university administrators alike—can do about it. I don’t know if they get it right on all accounts, but it’s a fascinating and thought-provoking effort and one that I think any parent should read.

“Coddling” opens with a description of three Great Untruths, or really terrible ideas, that Lukianoff and Haidt warn are spreading dangerously through universities. These ideas conflict with basic psychological principles about well-being and ancient wisdom from across the world:

  1. The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker;
  2. The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings; and
  3. The Untruth of Us versus Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people.

From these bad ideas stem all sorts of problems, including the rise of safetyism, intimidation, violence, witch hunts, polarization, anxiety, depression, and, frankly, just a general decline in a what makes America great (my words, not theirs): the ability to speak, argue, and debate, and remain neighbors.

Lukianoff and Haidt are to the left of me politically, but I’m not sure how much that matters. I found common ground throughout their book. We should all agree that students are stronger when they are challenged. We should all agree that the best ideas will win out in the marketplace. We should all want to raise children to be anti-fragile (or able to ”thrive as a result of stressors, shocks, volatility, noise, mistakes, faults, attacks, or failures”). A future that is made by citizens that are rational is a better future for all of us.

Back to the interns. Our best discussions are on topics without easy answers. My interns have been, so far, resilient, interested, and curious, not to mention tenacious, passionate, and persuasive. They’re going to be great leaders someday, which is great because our country will need great leaders.

But we could all do better at training our children—and our students—to be more resilient and anti-fragile. Technology has changed so fast over the last twenty years that were just barely starting to see how it impacts us psychologically and physiologically. The cultural implications are legion. We could do better at making our universities what they were and are supposed to be instead of a place for coddling and safety. Lukianoff and Haidt’s concrete and specific suggestions may not be all the answers, but they provide plenty to consider, and we—parents, university administrators, and students alike—should consider it.


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