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The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure Hardcover – 4 Sep 2018
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Excellent . . . their advice is sound . . . liberal parents, in particular, should read it (Edward Luce Financial Times)
An important if disturbing book . . . Lukianoff and Haidt tell a plausible story (Niall Ferguson The Times)
A compelling and timely argument against attitudes and practises that, however well-intended, are damaging our universities, harming our children and leaving an entire generation intellectually and emotionally ill-prepared for an ever-more fraught and complex world. A brave and necessary work. (Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks)
No one is omniscient or infallible, so a willingness to evaluate new ideas is vital to understanding our world. Yet universities, which ought to be forums for open debate, are developing a reputation for dogmatism and intolerance. Haidt and Lukianoff, distinguished advocates of freedom of expression, offer a deep analysis of what's going wrong on campus, and how we can hold universities to their highest ideals. (Steven Pinker)
Our behavior in society is not immune to the power of rational scientific analysis. Through that lens, prepare yourself for a candid look at the softening of America, and what we can do about it. (Neil deGrasse Tyson)
We can talk ourselves into believing that some kinds of speech will shatter us, or we can talk ourselves out of that belief. The authors know the science. We are not as fragile as our self-appointed protectors suppose. Read this deeply informed book to become a more resilient soul in a more resilient democracy. (Philip E. Tetlock)
Their message is an urgent one... it is one that resonates well beyond dusty libraries and manicured quadrangles, into all of our lives (Josh Glancy The Sunday Times)
The book models the virtues and practical wisdom its authors rightly propose as the keys to progress. Lukianoff and Haidt teach young people -and all of us- by example as well as precept (Cornel West)
About the Author
Jonathan Haidt is a social and cultural psychologist and the Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University's Stern School of Business. He is the author of The Righteous Mind and The Happiness Hypothesis.
Greg Lukianoff is a lawyer and president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. His writings on campus free speech have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and the Washington Post.
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This is the territory of this book, with an added dimension: modern students may be opposed to such speakers, but must be defended from them lest they be upset. Welcome to a subset of the snowflake generation.
Lukianoff and Haidt begin by amplifying the “three bad ideas” which, they claim, lie at the heart of the modern tendency of “campus safety”. They then give several real world examples of how this thinking manifests itself, suggest reasons for how we got here, and finally propose some ways to break the cycle.
According to the authors, many students now expect “not to be exposed to intolerant and offensive ideals”. It is argued that that the suppression on campus of opinion deemed to be non-egalitarian is not new, and can be traced back to Herbert Marcuse (hence, I believe, the fictitious but realistic episode in the History Man), but has developed due to a variety of factors. These include:
-Reaction to perception of intersectionality. (I first met this term last week, when watching Bath University’s video “Why is my curriculum white?” – required viewing, I suggest.) This can increase the extent of polarisation between different groups (if you’re not a good guy, you’re a bad guy).
-The tendency for social media to increase the frequency and intensity of “call-out culture” (naming and shaming for small offences against political correctness)
-The belief that physical violence is a justifiable means of preventing the expression of “hateful” views, e.g. racism.
As to how these factors came into play, some of the suggested causes are:
-Universities have become more like large corporations, and like them have acquired an ever-growing army of administrators, for whom one main aim is to ensure students are “comfortable” – even if this means severely limiting students’ exposure to new ideas.
[An example of this relates to the very article which was the origin of this book. A professor got his class to read the article, then asked them to discuss a controversial topic of their own choice (transgender issues). After the professor had said that the discussion needed to include the viewpoints of those opposed to some provision for transgender people, a student filed a “bias incident report” against him, after which the university did not rehire him.]
-The students now coming to university – “iGen” arrive having had “less unsupervised time and fewer offline life experience than any previous generation”, which ill prepares them for confronting ideas alien to them. The authors suggest that this is not simply an Internet issue, as the preceding generation - the Millennials – were made of stronger stuff. As an example, the book contrasts a questionnaire given to parents of new first-graders in 1979, which majored on how independent the child was, and a modern equivalent concerned mainly with their academic level.
The remedies the authors suggest are targeted at children, and include CBT, mindfulness and limitation of screen time. If the “campus safety culture” is as embedded as claimed here, and elsewhere in the media, it may take more than these techniques to shift it, but it’s a start.
Bravely, Lukianoff describes how, several years ago, CBT helped him to overcome his own suicidal feelings. He uses this as an example of how to recognise cognitive distortion, the factor which influences so many modern students to exaggerate the impact of speech and ideas which do not suit them.
You may or may not agree with the book, but it is valuable reading for anyone who wants to get a feel for current campus atmosphere, or is concerned about how it has developed. The raguments are generally well-presented, though the authors could havetaken slighltly more of their own medicine, i.e. included more content based on interviews with the “safety” school of thought.
I started with Malcolm Bradbury, so I’ll finish with the statement, erroneously credited to Voltaire, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. This, as much as anything, is the core argument of the book.
The main argument of the book is that the post-millennial generation, ‘iGen’ or Generation Z, born between 1995 and 2012, have suffered from over-protective parenting and a culture of ‘safetyism’. The authors stress that they do not think that this generation have everything easy or face no challenges. However, modern parenting and schooling (and a shift towards playing with screens rather than outside) increasingly deprive children of opportunities for free play and risk-taking which, in turn, stunts their emotional development. The result is that adolescents are, or at least see themselves as, fragile and come to regard anything that they find uncomfortable as a threat to be removed, rather than an obstacle to overcome.
The authors argue against tendencies to avoid risk or challenge, trust our feelings, and see life as a battle between good people and evil people. Instead, they suggest, we should learn to confront and overcome challenges, thereby growing as people. While those who seek to remove dangers, and create ‘safe spaces,’ are well-intentioned, this results in diminished resilience. (Here I’m reminded of the Martians from H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (Collins Classics), who had succeeded in eradicating germs from their own world but, in consequence, weakened their immune systems.)
The first two sections of the book examine three ‘Great Untruths’ and their manifestations. Part three tries to explain how these changes have come about, while part four suggests some ways that parents, universities, and society can try to respond to these changes, encouraging risk-taking and engagement with alternative points of view, rather than trying to silence them. (Here I’m reminded of J. S. Mill’s classic arguments in favour of freedom of expression. It’s no coincidence, as Haidt was involved in the production of All Minus One: John Stuart Mill's Ideas on Free Speech Illustrated, which gets a plug on p. 248.)
While I found it an interesting read, I have to say that the description and diagnosis of the problems was nothing particularly original. The authors first set out their position in a 2015 essay in The Atlantic and, while this book expands on it, I don’t know that it adds much of importance.
I’m more interested in the proposed remedies, but I’m not convinced how effective these are likely to be, if things really are as bad as the authors suggest, particularly for university educators – like myself – confronted with cohorts of children who have been ‘coddled’ through their upbringing. It might well have been better had this not been the case, but what can be done now? Will they continue to resist any attempts to challenge them, in ways that they find uncomfortable, and demand protection? Might it even be the case that their upbringing has not only made them think that they are fragile but actually made them fragile? If so, perhaps they actually are less able to deal with challenges than they might have been had they been given the kind of upbringing recommended here.
I’m not sure that this book offers real answers or, at least, practical ones. Even if the advice were implemented, at a societal level, given that the authors stress the importance of formative years – both in childhood and the impressionable ages of 14 and 24 (p. 214) – it might not make a significant difference until the next generation. I take it that the authors think members of iGen are not really as fragile as they think they are and that it is not too late for them to learn to overcome discomfort, rather than to see it as dangerous. But, given all that’s been said about the various over-coddling tendencies, this may be optimistic.