Review: Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure (Penguin, 2018).

Review by James Cornwell

Levin had often noticed in arguments between even the most intelligent people that after enormous efforts, an enormous number of logical subtleties and words, the arguers would finally come to the awareness that what they had spent so long struggling to prove to each other had been known to them long, long before, from the beginning of the argument, but that they loved different things and therefore did not want to name what they loved, so as not to be challenged. He had often felt that sometimes during an argument you would understand what your opponent loves, and suddenly come to love the same thing yourself, and agree all at once, and then all reasonings would fall away as superfluous; and sometimes it was the other way round: you would finally say what you yourself love, for the sake of which you are inventing your reasonings, and if you happened to say it well and sincerely, the opponent would suddenly agree and stop arguing. That was the very thing he wanted to say.

Leo Tolstoy, Anne Karenina

I thought often of Konstantin Dmitrievich Levin as I read The Coddling of the American Mind (Penguin, 2018) by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff. A similar kind of optimism shines throughout this well-sourced and timely work of social science. If we apply the best that science tells us to our children and to our institutions, they will once again be the open, thriving centers of intellectual engagement they were intended to be. The problem is that the leaders and the students of institutions have adopted a set of perspectives and habits that squelch such thriving.

Haidt and Lukianoff’s arguments are founded in empirical data, and their explanations make a great deal of sense, while not being overstated. They source the current unrest on college campuses (sometimes culminating in violence) to an unintended education of the current generation in Three Great Untruths:

  • What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.
  • Always trust your feelings.
  • Life is a battle between good people and evil people.

These untruths, they argue, are largely the result of several recent developments in society, parenting styles, and education.

The logic is relatively straightforward. We have over-protected and over-managed our children, who therefore never experience risk or minor social conflict in a meaningful way. They argue that failing to build on antifragility (the tendency to grow stronger amid minor to moderate adversity) has emotionally crippled the younger generation.

This implicit belief that children need to be protected is tied to the second untruth (always trust your feelings). In many respects, institutions have begun treating feelings and internal experiences not as hypotheses requiring examination in the light of evidence, but as conclusions requiring affirmation and support by the surrounding social, institutional, and sometimes legal environment. Exposure to offensive or challenging ideas make people feel unsafe. Since such individuals have been taught to trust their feelings, their feeling unsafe must mean they are unsafe, and therefore extraordinary measures must be taken to restore safety.

Who makes individuals on campuses feel unsafe? This leads to the third great untruth (life is a battle between good people and evil people). Individuals who are ill-equipped to handle challenges to their most cherished beliefs about themselves and the world, who thus feel unsafe when encountering individuals who express such challenges, draw a bright line between those who affirm their innermost beliefs and those who argue against them. Those who land on the non-affirming side are anathematized and treated as the enemy, who must be silenced, shut out, and driven from campus in order to restore the safety of those who affirm such beliefs. Hence, the heated and sometimes violent episodes of campus unrest Americans have seen in recent years.

Haidt and Lukianoff provide six threads that they see contributing to this state of affairs: the polarization of society, helicopter parenting, increases in anxiety and depression, the decline of free play among children, a bureaucracy of “safetyism,” and a natural quest for justice among students. Most of these issues are interrelated, and can be traced to three phenomena.

First, parents desperately want their children to attend college, so they over-program their schedules with guided instruction and classes from early in childhood to provide a leg up against their peers (or, in many cases, to barely keep pace with them).

Second, digital device use has exploded among young people. The authors frequently cite another book, iGen by Jean Twenge, which details an incredible shift in adolescent behaviors since the release of the iPhone. Children and teenagers engage in far more screen use (including the use of many social media apps that engage some of the worst components of our psychology) and far less face-to-face contact with peers.

Third, social and legal mores have not yet adjusted to the precipitous decline in violent crime since the middle 1990s, and still instill fears of dangers that have largely ceased to exist.

None of these factors is ill-intentioned, but when combined, they teach children a kind of dependency on authority figures, a fear of risk, and an unfamiliarity with the social world of adults. It is not difficult to trace the through-line of such practices to the sorts of campus unrest we see today.

Note, for example, its distinctiveness from the campus violence of the 1960s, which pitted violent students against the university administration. Today’s protesters, in contrast, demand action by the administration against other students, faculty, administrators, or outside groups.

To counter these trends, the authors recommend improvements in parental practices, including free-range parenting and encouraging a gap year before college; adjustments in institutional rules in academia, such as the University of Chicago’s vigorous support of academic freedom; and knowledge of psychological practices such as cognitive behavioral therapy, which can restore the resilience of young adults and improve discourse on campus.

Speaking purely as a social scientist, I found the book — from its diagnosis to its recommended courses of action — convincing, and I highly recommend it to parents, educators, and administrators alike. That said, returning to Levin’s reasoning makes me wonder if it will be enough. Levin observed that arguments are frequently built upon what one loves, and are not entirely about argumentation. Haidt and Lukianoff’s recommendations exist at the level of process (as well they should, considering that this is a work of social science), but I can’t stop thinking about what it is these students love, and by implication what we’re teaching them to love, and how that relates to what we’ve observed on campus in recent years. And here lies what I see as the one limitation, not of the book, but in moderate and centrist attempts to shore up the middle to late 20th-century understanding of the academy by trying to improve academic processes. They seem to assume an existential orientation of soul — an orientation based on the love of truth — that may no longer exist.

The parenting and institutional practices that Haidt and Lukianoff critique not only involve limiting the exposure of children and adolescents to risk and mild threats; they also signal to those same youths what is really important in life, and what gives them value as individuals. This calls to mind research conducted in the early 21st century by Jennifer Crocker and Riia Luhtanen on contingencies of self-worth. They argued that one may predict the effects that specific life events will have on an individual’s self-esteem by examining the degree to which that individual places importance on that particular domain. Many of these domains were external or public — things like academics, appearance, approval from others, and competition. Other domains were private or internal, particularly virtue and God’s love.

Across a number of studies, placing a greater emphasis on the public/external was associated with an increase in depressive symptoms during the first semester of college, a higher prevalence of academic, social, and financial problems among students, and a higher rate of photo sharing on social media. In contrast, placing one’s self-esteem in the domains of virtue and God’s love was unrelated to these harmful effects, instead predicting things like volunteering, sports, attending to spiritual needs, higher levels of agreeability and conscientiousness, and lower levels of social media use and narcissism.

I wonder, therefore, how the retreat of religious institutions has contributed to the problems we are seeing on campus. The “concerted cultivation” style of parenting not only prevents time for unstructured play, as Haidt and Lukianoff note, but it teaches children that their value lies in their academic and competitive achievements. Social media use not only diverts children and adolescents from face-to-face interactions, but also teaches them to overvalue physical appearance and social approval of their beliefs and values by their peers.

What about relying on virtue and God? Two pieces published recently in The New York Times, one by Jonathan Merritt and the other by David Brooks, have highlighted how discussions of the divine and of moral rectitude have declined in public discourse. The methods each writer used to highlight these declines is imprecise, of course, but the trends seem to be toward placing one’s sense of self-worth in external categories and away from placing them on internal (or, perhaps I should say, eternal) ones.

This makes me wonder, of course, whether much of what Haidt and Lukianoff rightly criticize as safetyism — and the catastrophizing language of postmodern discourse that identifies speech with violence — rises from college students no longer having the vocabulary to describe their experiences in moral and spiritual terms. They are neither animated by rigorous adherence to a set of ethical principles nor grounded in in the arms of a loving God.

Should we be surprised, then, that their natural moral impulses have been dominated by concepts provided by figures like Foucault, Derrida, and Levinas, and that their metaphysics resembles the sort of ethical Bolshevism that figures like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Václav Havel inveighed against? We cannot talk about categories of right and wrong, so we must instead talk of “healthy” discourse and “problematic” discourse, the latter of which, among postmodern theorists, is frequently treated as a form of violence of the strong against the weak. And if we cannot support the weak against the strong, what precisely are we being educated for?

In the face of such metaphysical fatalism, I wonder how effective structural and procedural changes alone can be. Every recommendation in The Coddling of the American Mind is worth enacting, but part of me wonders whether the practices that require reform are a symptom of the problems within our institutions, rather than their cause. If you take away a child’s smartphone and tell him to go play outside, what do you say when he asks you Why? When you tell your teenager that she should delete her social media account (that all of her friends are on) and instead focus on her face-to-face interactions with those friends, what is your argument when she objects? When you tell a college student to stop treating things he doesn’t like as dangerous and suggest that he spend more time with differing people, what will be your rationale?

If your argument is that it will give them a leg up over their peers in college life, make them better intellectual citizens of the university, and more open-minded with improved mental health, I’m not sure it’s going to be enough — not when the other side promises the eradication of injustice, and a perfect future in which people who talk, think, and act like them have finally triumphed over evil. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe the gods of Enlightenment liberalism will be attractive enough to tame the primordial desires and fears that fuel our national drama of polarization and mutual demonization. But I just can’t shake the feeling that what we need is more than just changed management, processes, and procedures: We need to start refocusing on what we teach our children to love.

Speaking from a Christian perspective, I note that it’s hard to think of the world as being divided into those who are good and those who are evil when you’ve been warned by God incarnate to take heed to the log in your own eye before seeing to the specks in others’. It’s very difficult for you to put complete trust in your feelings when the stories from your community’s sacred Scriptures tell of individuals and communities perennially following “the devices and desires” of their hearts straight to their destruction. It’s impossible to believe that what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker when you’ve put your whole trust in a God whose glory derives from his shameful death on a cross.

If you are a student, a parent, an educator, a spiritual director, or just a casual observer of the unfolding scene on American college campuses, I heartily recommend this book. The conclusions are sound and the recommendations are helpful. To those recommendations, however, I would add the following: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” And “love your neighbor as yourself.” And, in both your words and your deeds, teach your children to do likewise.

Dr. James Cornwell is assistant professor in the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership of  the United States Military Academy at West Point.

This publication was privately produced and is not the product of an official of the United States Army acting in an official capacity. The contents of this publication, including words, images, and opinions, are unofficial and not to be considered as the official views of the United States Military Academy, United States Army, or Department of Defense. Neither this publication nor its content are endorsed by the United States Military Academy, United States Army, or Department of Defense.

Editor’s note: This post caps off a short series on education, children, and the Church. Check out the others on our education page.

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