The Coddling of the American Mind — Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff

Apart from its intellectual content and institutional structure descriptions, The Coddling of the American Mind makes being a contemporary college student in some schools sound like a terrible experience:

Life in a call-out culture requires constant vigilance, fear, and self-censorship. Many in the audience may feel sympathy for the person being shamed but are afraid to speak up, yielding the false impression that the audience is unanimous in its condemnation.

Who would want to live this way? It sounds exhausting and tedious. If we’ve built exhausting and tedious ways to live into the college experience, perhaps we ought to stop doing that. I also find it strange that, in virtually every generation, free speech and free thought have to be re-litigated. The rationale behind opposing free speech and thought changes, but the opposition remains.

Coddling is congruent with this conversation between Claire Lehmann and Tyler Cowen, where Lehmann describes Australian universities:

COWEN: With respect to political correctness, how is it that Australian universities are different?

LEHMANN: I think the fact that they’re public makes a big difference because students are not paying vast sums to go to university in the first place, so students have less power.

If you’re a student, and you make a complaint against a professor in an Australian university, the university’s just going to shrug its shoulders, and you’ll be sort of walked out of the room. Students have much less power to make complaints and have their grievances heard. That’s one factor.

Another factor is, we don’t have this hothouse environment where students go and live on campus and have their social life collapsed into their university life.

Most students in Australia live at home with their parents or move into a share house and then travel to university, but they don’t live on campus. So there isn’t this compression where your entire life is the campus environment. That’s another factor.

Overall, I suspect the American university environment as a total institution where students live, study, and play might be a better one in some essential ways: it may foster more entrepreneurship, due to students being physically proximate to one another. American universities have a much greater history of alumni involvement (and donations), donations likely being tied into the sense of affinity with the university generated by living on campus.

But Haidt and Lukianoff are pointing to some of the potential costs: when everything happens on campus, no one gets a break from “call-out culture” or accusations of being “offensive.” I think I would laugh at this sort of thing if I were an undergrad today, or choose bigger schools (the authors use an example from Smith College) that are more normal and less homogenous and neurotic. Bigger schools have more diverse student bodies and fewer students with the time and energy to relentlessly surveil one another. The authors describe how “Reports from around the country are remarkably similar; students at many colleges today are walking on eggshells, afraid of saying the wrong thing, liking the wrong post, or coming to the defense of someone who they know to be innocent, out of fear they themselves will be called out by a mob on social media.”

Professors, especially in humanities departments, seem to be helping to create this atmosphere by embracing “micro aggressions,” “intersectionality,” and similar doctrines of fragility. Perhaps professors ought to stop doing that, too. I wonder too if or when students will stop wanting to attend schools like Smith, where the “Us vs them” worldview prevails.

School itself may be becoming more boring: “Many professors say they now teach and speak more cautiously, because one slip or simple misunderstanding could lead to vilification and even threats from any number of sources.” And, in an age of ubiquitous cameras, it’s easy to take something out of context. Matthew Reed, who has long maintained a blog called “Dean Dad,” has written about how he would adopt certain political perspectives in class (Marxist, fascist, authoritarian, libertarian, etc.) in an attempt to get students to understand what some of those ideologies entail and what their advocates might say. So he’d say things he doesn’t believe in order to get students to think. But that strategy is prone to the camera-and-splice practice. It’s a tension I feel, too: in class I often raise ideas or reading to encourage thinking or offer pushback against apparent groupthink. Universities are supposed to exist to help students (and people more generally) think independently; while courtesy is important, at what point does “caution” become tedium, or censorship?

Schools encourage fragility in other ways:

“Always trust your feelings,” said Misoponos, and that dictum hay sound wise and familiar. You’ve heard versions of it from a variety of sappy novels and pop psychology gurus. But the second Great Untruth—the Untruth of Emotional Reasoning—is a direct contradiction of much ancient wisdom. [. . .] Sages in many societies have converged on the insight that feelings are always compelling, but not always reliable.

More important than ancient sages, modern psychologists and behavioral economists have found and argued the same. Feelings of fear, uncertainty, and doubt are strangely encouraged: “Administrators often acted in ways that gave the impression that students were in constant danger and in need of protection from a variety of risks and discomforts.” How odd: 18- and 19-year-olds in the military face risks and discomforts like, you know, being shot. Maybe the issue is that our society has too little risk, or risk that is invisible (this is your occasional reminder that about 30,000 people die in car crashes every year, and hundreds of thousands more are mangled, yet we do little to alleviate the car-centric world).

Umberto Eco says, “Art is an escape from personal emotion, as both Joyce and Eliot had taught me.” Yet we often treat personal emotion as the final arbiter and decider of things. “Personal emotion” is very close the word “feelings.” We should be wary of trusting those feelings; art enables to escape from our own feelings into someone else’s conception of the world, if we allow it to. The study of art in many universities seemingly discourages this. Perhaps we ought to read more Eco.

I wonder if Coddling is going to end up being one of those important books no one reads.

It is also interesting to read Coddling in close proximity to Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. Perhaps we need less iPhone and more magic mushrooms. I’d actually like to hear a conversation among Pollan, Haidt, and Lukianoff. The other day I was telling a friend about How to Change Your Mind, and he said that not only had he tried psychedelics in high school, but his experience cured or alleviated his stutter and helped him find his way in the world. The plural of anecdote is not data, but it’s hard to imagine safety culture approving of psychedelic experiences (despite their safety, which Pollan describes in detail).

In The Lord of the Rings when Aragorn and his companions believe that Gandalf has perished in Moria; Gimli says that “Gandalf chose to come himself, and he was the first to be lost… his foresight failed him.” Aragorn replies, “The counsel of Gandalf was not founded on foreknowledge of safety, for himself or for others.” And neither is life: it is not founded on foreknowledge of safety. Adventure is necessary to become a whole person. Yet childhood and even universities are today increasingly obsessed with safety, to the detriment of the development of children and students. In my experience, military veterans returning to college are among the most intersting and diligent students. We seem to have forgotten Gandalf’s lessons. One advantage in reading old books may be some of the forgotten cultural assumptions beneath them; in The Lord of the Rings risk is necessary for reward, and the quality of a life is not dependent on the elimination of challenge.

Here’s a good critical review.

9 responses

  1. Pingback: The Coddling of the American Mind — Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff — The Story’s Story – Content Blues

  2. “… professors, especially in humanities departments, seem to be helping to create this atmosphere [of proscriptive normativism] …”

    Never forget that the American educational system serves to convey social education within American society first and foremost, with technical education for skills and for proficiency in general within a given field coming well behind that.

    Consider Dewey, for instance, from that perspective, or any of the other progressives who helped create such things as “the Gary Schools”, which are still in abundance in America as local government-run educational factory farms.

    That’s why it’s completely fair for non-Americans to look at such things as American literature works as somewhat parochial, American science works as beholden to unvoiced and unwritten special concerns that fly in the face of science, and American political theory as somewhat retrogressive and naïve.

    Although this may appear at first glance to be an anti-American viewpoint of recent coinage, it is neither anti-American nor a recent viewpoint, but an honest statement of facts that have been true for decades.

    Sinclair Lewis’s Nobel Prize lecture in 1930 puts paid to some of these notions, and then some, as does his literature.

    The American educational system pursues in its present overly progressive form a sort of aggressive “good neighbour” policy: this social education helps tether the otherwise untethered in America with something that resembles a tolerable, inoffensive way to live, rather than as an ambitious programme that helps to better the people so they can better the country and each other.

    Lost in this “calculus of the imaginary mean” is a lot of what it actually does take to do such things as “making America great again”, which doesn’t trickle up from such figures as “great men” but instead spreads outward from general civic and personal competence.

    This is why I see the book’s title as a misnomer as well: “The Coddling of the American Mind” may as well be spoken of in the past tense, as in “The American Mind, Coddled”, from which there are perhaps even fewer escapes than existed in the time of Sinclair Lewis.

    Such absurd notions for adults as “Fairness in Kindergarten” are apparently all the rage to teach in American universities these days, whereas these things used to be oddly conceived ephemera once sought out in the self-help sections of book shops.


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  4. I’m planning to read Lukianoff and Haidt’s book, if only so I can more vividly remember what it was like to be in college from 1989 to 1993. We didn’t know it at the time, but it was something of a golden age for free speech.

    Environmental groups dressed as trees and Native Americans staged “die ins” to protest Columbus Day. The guy who ran the LGBT group walked around in a dress and offered passers-by the chance to “Kiss a Queer” at every campus event where he could get a booth. When the first Gulf War broke out, anti-war groups formed—and so did one pro-war group. I had a Roman Catholic philosophy professor who spoke out forcefully against abortion; I had an atheist Roman history professor who spent three hours of every semester ranting against Christianity in his classroom, even as the Gideons hung out on the corners of the campus and distributed Bibles. At one point, a pathetic remnant of the Klan marched down our main street, with their rights (but not their message) supported by the journalism department and the ACLU. Not long after, the campus hosted a speech by an antisemitic black supremacist who had made the national news. I published a crass cartoon in the university newspaper advocating, wholly tongue-in-cheek, that everyone on campus should be issued a gun. Everyone was a little bit nuts, the potential to be offended was an accepted part of everyday life, and it was fun. It occurs to me now that we didn’t have just freedom to mouth off like idiots; we had the more priceless freedom of being able to play with ideas, often rather stupid ones, before moving on to places where those ideas would have consequences.


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