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.

“The right really was coming after college next”

Excuse the awkward headline and focus on the content in “The right really was coming after college next.” Relatively few people point out that college has been coming after the right for a very long time; sometimes college correctly comes after the right (e.g. Iraq War II), but the coming after is usually indiscriminate. I’ve spent my entire adult life hearing professors say that Republicans are stupid or people who vote for Romney or whoever are stupid. Perhaps we ought not to be surprised when the right eventually hits back?

A few have noticed that “Elite colleges are making it easy for conservatives to dislike them.” A few have also noticed that we ought to be working towards greater civility and respect, especially regarding ideological disagreement; that’s one purpose of Jonathan Haidt’s Heterodox Academy. Still, on the ground and on a day-to-day level, the academic vituperation towards the right in the humanities and most social sciences (excluding economics) has been so obvious and so clear that I’m surprised it’s taken this long for a backlash.

Because I’m already imagining the assumptions in the comments and on Twitter, let me note that I’m not arguing this from the right—I find that I’m on the side of neither the right nor the left, in part because neither the right nor the left is on my side—but I am arguing this as someone who cares about freedom of speech and freedom of thought, which have never been free and have often been unpopular. It’s important to work towards understanding before judgment or condemnation, even though that principle too has likely never been popular or widely adopted.

It seems to me that homogeneous, lockstep thought is dangerous wherever it occurs, and increasingly it appears to be occurring in large parts of colleges. One hopes that the colleges notice this and try to self-correct. Self-correction will likely be more pleasant than whatever political solution might be devised in statehouses.


Is most narrative art just a series of status games?

In The Righteous Mind Jonathan Haidt writes:

If you think that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you’ll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you. But if you think about moral reasoning as a skill we humans evolved to further our own social agendas—to justify our own actions and to defend teams we belong to—then things will make a lot more sense. Keep your eye on the intuitions, and don’t take people’s moral arguments at face value. They’re mostly post hoc constructions made up on the fly, crafted to advance one or more strategic objectives.

And those post hoc constructions are often “crafted” subconsciously, without the speaker or listener even aware of what they’re doing. It occurs to me in light of this that most narrative art and the moral reasoning implied in it is just a set of moral status games: someone, usually the narrator, is trying to raise their own status and perhaps that of their group too. Seen in this way a lot of novels, TV shows, and movies get stripped of their explicit content and become vehicles for intuitive status games. Police shows are perhaps the worst offenders but are by no means the only ones. Most romance novels are about raising the heroine’s status through the acquisition of a high-status man.

One could apply similar logic to other genres. While realizing this may make most narrative art more boring, it may also open the possibility of writing narrative art that is explicitly not about status games, or that tries to avoid them to the extent possible. Science fiction may be the genre least prone to relentless status gaming, though “least prone” may also be faint praise.

Links: Outlier pants, your microbiome, academia, words direct from Aleppo, MRSA, and more!

* “Burgers and fries have nearly killed our ancestral microbiome:” or how real food promotes good things in our guts, and vice-versa. Perhaps the most actionable piece you’ll read today. Plus: “Forget paleo, go mid-Victorian: it’s the healthiest diet you’ve never heard of.”

* “The Revenge of the Coddled: An Interview with Jonathan Haidt.”

* Are English departments better than what I, and possibly you, think? I hope so but I’m skeptical. Freddie also doesn’t have a TT job right now; we’ll see if he gets one and how his views might evolve over time. This is a good time to reiterate “What you should know BEFORE you start grad school / PhD programs in English Literature: The economic, financial, and opportunity costs.” Short version: Don’t do it.

* Aleppo-based VLC contributor speaks to the Paris attacks.

* “Saudi Arabia, an ISIS that has made it.” In political discussions I often point out that Saudi Arabia’s tone, values, and policies are diametrically opposed to the ones espoused by the American and European governments that often support Saudi Arabia.

* California’s DOT Admits [the obvious:] More Roads Mean More Traffic.

* A MRSA vaccine is in the works.

* Case Study: Outlier on Creating the 21st Century Jean. Has anyone worn these? I’m thinking about getting a pair.

* On Mary Gaitskill’s The Mare. Books about children rarely interest me (exception: Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials), but Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior is for the right person amazing.

How much of university life is about education? Gladwell, Bissinger, and the football-on-campus debate

In “College Football Should Be Banned: How Malcolm Gladwell and Buzz Bissinger won the Slate/Intelligence Squared live debate,” Katy Waldman writes that “Bissinger [who is most famous for writing Friday Night Lights . . .] reserved his ire for what he called ‘the distracted university’: the campus so awash in fun and fandom that it neglects learning. The United States faces the most competitive global economy in recent memory, he warned. An unhealthy obsession with sports handicaps our intellectual class.” This might be true, but most students don’t seem to care very much: In Beer and Circus: How Big-Time Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education, Murray Sperber says relatively few students attend college for primarily intellectual reasons. Most appear to view it as party time or a way to signal other characteristics.

Colleges have noticed this and responded, in the main, by inflating grades and reducing work. Campuses aren’t “awash in fun and fandom” because of some nefarious conspiracy: they’re awash in fun and fandom because most people appear to like those things more than they like discussing sonnets or the finer points of hash tables. There are obviously individual exceptions to this—like me, and most professors or would-be professors—but the overall trend is clear.

If students demand more serious classes, you’ll be able to tell by the number who stop taking weak business classes, comm, and sociology, and start taking hard core classes in the liberal arts and sciences. The overall trend, however, appears to be in the opposite direction in most disciplines and at most universities. This trend looks like it’s being driven more by students and their choices than by any other force. Until the chattering classes acknowledge that, we’re going to get hand-waving or evil-administrator explanations.

Still, I agree with Bissinger: college football should be ended or at least radically changed. But my reasons are different: it’s obvious that colleges should be paying the people who are professional athletes in all but name, and it’s unethical to pay coaches hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars while the effectively professional athletes receive only dubious “scholarships.” It’s also obvious by now that repeated sub-concussive blows to the head can cause CTE, and that football is inherently dangerous in the same way smoking is inherently dangerous. If adults want to take up inherently dangerous activities, they should be able to in most circumstances, and football is one of those circumstances. But they should at the very least be paid for the risks they choose to take.

That being said, if college sports are reduced to their proper scope, it’s not obvious what will replace them as a large-scale, collective ritual. Jonathan Haidt writes about the value of such rituals and the group experiences they inspire in The Righteous Mind, and American life has systematically removed such rituals from most people’s lives. Religion or military service once provided them, but now the former has waned for most people and the latter is a specialist occupation. Sports are one domain that expanded to fulfill the need many people have for arbitrary tribal affiliation and collective action. That might be one reason a lot of people react viscerally against the deserved criticism of college sports: such criticism feels like an attack on identity, not merely a discussion about economics and exploitation. I don’t really have a good method for negating or altering such feelings.

In the case of football, however, I wouldn’t be surprised if a scenario like the one Tyler Cowen and Kevin Grier lay out in “What Would the End of Football Look Like? An economic perspective on CTE and the concussion crisis” occurs. Notice especially this line: “More and more modern parents will keep their kids out of playing football, and there tends to be a ‘contagion effect’ with such decisions; once some parents have second thoughts, many others follow suit.” Based on the CTE data I’ve seen, there’s absolutely no way I’d let one of my (currently hypothetical) children play football, and if my friends let their kids play, I’d be tempted to forward some of the CTE and football literature. Just as very few modern parents want their children to smoke, even if they do or did, I would not be surprised if, in a short period of time, very few modern parents want their children to play football.

Links: The dubious value of humanities graduate degrees, Hemlock Grove and vampires, Hunter Moore and, poetry’s playfulness, and more

* When to leave grad school off your resume. In my limited experience reading resumes, having a PhD is a minus; an M.A. is useless, and being in grad school makes me think less of its value, not more.

* “The Forgotten Student: Has Higher Education Stiffed Its Most Important Client?: How the prestige game costs students more money for a lower-quality education.” To me, this is utterly obvious.

* The novel Hemlock Grove sounds like fun: “‘Its howls all the while more plaintive and lupine as a snout emerged through its lips and worked open and shut, its old face bunched around it in an obsolete mask. It rolled onto all fours and rose shaking violently, spraying blood in a mist and divesting himself of the remnants of man coat in a hot mess.’ It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to write like this, to use an almost Faulknerian descriptive palette in service of a monster story.”

* Is the Future of English Bad Science?

* “Hunter Moore Makes a Living Screwing You;” I had never heard of before and won’t link directly, but as I read the story I kept thinking, “This is why it’s hard to write relevant contemporary fiction. . .” This, and Reddit’s user-submitted adult site, which you can find easily enough if you want to.

* A short, accurate description of the long-term problems in Europe. This is also, on some level, about how people form groups and act in those groups. (“Americans in Massachusetts and Americans in Mississippi do feel themselves part of the same country, sharing language and culture. Germans and Spaniards do not feel the same.”) See further Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind.

* “Most men won’t be allowed to admit this, but the new HBO show [Girls] is a disastrous celebration of entitlement and helplessness.”

* Why poetry should be more playful, which seems completely obvious to me; Billy Collins is one of my favorite poets precisely because he’s so playful, so much the opposite of the poetry read in school. From the post itself: “The growing distance between serious verse and children’s verse has certainly been connected—as cause, effect, or more likely both—to the increasing irrelevance of serious poetry.”

* Why you should read Before the Lights Go Out.

Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind and what we’re really arguing about

There’s a fascinating moment in The Righteous Mind where Jonathan Haidt makes a point similar to one I wrote about earlier:

If you think that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you’ll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you. But if you think about moral reasoning as a skill we humans evolved to further our social agendas—to justify our own actions and to defend the teams we belong to—then things will make a lot more sense. Keep your eye on the intuitions, and don’t take people’s moral arguments at face value. They’re mostly post hoc constructions made up on the fly, crafted to advance one or more strategic objectives.

Compare this to my December 2010 post “What people want and what they are: religious edition:”

. . . as Julian Sanchez puts it, “a lot of our current politics has less to do with actual policy disagreements than with resolving status anxieties.” I think his overall post is right, but I suspect that people pick their preferred policies (beyond patriotism, which is his example) to signal what they’re really like or want people to believe they’re really like.

Take my favorite example, gun control: the pro-gun types want other to think of them as capable, fierce, tough, and independent. And who isn’t in favor of those things? The anti-gun types want others to think of them as community-oriented, valuing health and welfare, and caring. And who isn’t in favor of those things?

You could extend this to other fields too (tax cuts, health care, whatever the issue du jour is), and they don’t always map to a neat left/right axis. Anyone can have an opinion that signals values on complex political topics in a way they can’t about, say, theoretical physics, mostly because complex political topics often don’t have correct answers. So they can be easily used to signal values that are often divorced from whatever real conditions on the ground look like. Almost no one uses their opinions on vector calculus to signify what they most believe.

Haidt doesn’t use the word “signal,” but his idea of using moral claims to “justify our own actions and to defend the teams we belong to” is pretty close. This also describes why, over the past ten years, I’ve become a person much less invested in political, moral, or (many kinds of) intellectual arguments: most of those arguments aren’t really about their content, but about something else, below the surface, that doesn’t always bob up to the surface. Here’s Paul Graham on that idea in “What You Can’t Say:”

Most struggles, whatever they’re really about, will be cast as struggles between competing ideas. The English Reformation was at bottom a struggle for wealth and power, but it ended up being cast as a struggle to preserve the souls of Englishmen from the corrupting influence of Rome. It’s easier to get people to fight for an idea. And whichever side wins, their ideas will also be considered to have triumphed, as if God wanted to signal his agreement by selecting that side as the victor.

Most people seem to equate “winning” an argument in a lawyerly fashion with being intellectually right. This might be why lawyers have some of the reputation they do: they get paid primarily to construct arguments that may be specious, but that have to be convincing.

I also like to think that realizing how moral arguments really work makes me a better teacher: rather than fighting with students who bring up moral arguments, I try to ask them where their arguments come from and how they come to believe what they believe. In other words, I try to work at a higher level of abstraction—which is what Haidt is doing in The Righteous Mind.

One other point about Haidt: if you’re frustrated by “how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you,” imagine how you must act to them.

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