Reference and Education

A Million Thoughts on ‘The Coddling of the American Mind’


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 is not the book I was expecting prior to reading.

Given the résumés of Haidt (social psychologist and professor in New York University’s Stern School of Business plus Board Chair of the Heterodox Academy) and Lukianoff (president and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) as well as the reception of their 2015 essay in the Atlantic from which the book was birthed, I was bracing for something on the ruination of the campus climate at the hands of students and the harm the current generation (the iGen) of young people is doing to educational institutions.

This is not that book.

For one, while there is a chapter recounting the greatest hits of campus speaker disinvitations and disputes (heavy on the Milo), the phrase “free speech crisis” does not appear even once. In fact, Lukianoff himself told Inside Higher Ed’s Scott Jaschik that the book is “not primarily about freedom of speech or the First Amendment.” 

This misapprehension is my fault and I would caution other readers against approaching the book with the same view. I am pleased to have been wrong.

For two, despite the title, students are never actually portrayed as “coddled” or “entitled.” Rather, the authors’ primary focus is on enhancing the well-being of “iGen” students who Haidt and Lukianoff recognize are more anxious and depressed with every successive year.

If it seems odd that a book primarily concerned with the well-being of students would boast a title implying that those students are “coddled,” I agree, as does Greg Lukianoff, who has told both Jaschik and the Chronicle of Higher Education that he essentially disagrees with his own title – preferring “Disempowered” – but ultimately going with the publisher’s preferred “The Coddling of the American Mind” because it is “less boring.”

The title is a discordant note coming from two authors who center the benefits of rational debate as a necessary part of our public discourse. It’s as though we should be truthful and accurate, except when it comes to having an attention-grabbing title which will help sell a lot of books.[1]

Lukianoff wanted to call the book “Disempowered” because, as he tells Jaschik, “We [Haidt and Lukianoff] believe we [society at large] have unwittingly taught a generation of students the mental habits of anxious, depressed, polarized people, and we need to rethink how we do everything from parenting in K-12, through, of course, higher education.”

The authors argue that children suffer under a culture of “safetyism” where parents endeavor to protect their offspring from harm, and in doing so, prevent them from developing the necessary skills of resiliency. They believe this plays a factor in some of the campus speech disputes as students are acculturated to fearing anything that may prove challenging and react accordingly.

The authors use Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), in which one is taught techniques to disrupt “disordered” thinking, as an alternative framework to safetyism. Through exposure to disagreeable ideas, students will become stronger and more resilient, less prone to the kinds of responses that Haidt and Lukianoff find disagreeable from a values standpoint, but which they also believe are ultimately harmful to the students’ own well-being.

This is perhaps useful as far as it goes, which isn’t all that far. Strangely, Haidt and Lukianoff maintain their opposition to the use of trigger warnings and campus safe spaces despite the fact that when used as a “heads up,” trigger warnings are not only consistent with CBT, but are an explicit technique as part of CBT.

But honestly, that stuff, as well as their argument that the iGen has different attitudes concerning issues of speech (highly debatable as Jeffrey Adam Sachs has argued at the Niskanen Center) is largely a sideshow[2] to the bigger problem of what’s going wrong with student mental health. This is the problem that Haidt and Lukianoff say they want to attack, and I am with them.

Unfortunately, the book is the equivalent of describing the noxious fumes which permeate the landscape without digging for the source of the toxins. Their solutions are the equivalent of providing respirators to (some of) the people breathing the poison, rather than cleaning up the Superfund site.

The authors maintain that “we have taught generation of students the mental habits of anxious, depressed, polarized people,” essentially passing along a bad case of safetyism. They do so without ever questioning the underlying culture in which safetyism seems to thrive.

In support of this theory, there is a chapter on the problem of “paranoid parenting,” a recasting of “helicopter parenting” with an additional focus on making sure children are physically safe. The paranoid parents are unfavorably compared to the “free range” parenting style championed by Lenore Skenazy.

Having grown up when free range parenting was called parenting, I am sympathetic to the critique of over-involved parents, but while the authors connect paranoid parenting to difficulties students may have in practicing agency once on campus, they offer no link between paranoid parenting and the kind of depression and anxiety so many students arrive with in college.[3]

Furthermore, as the authors themselves note, paranoid parenting is laregly exclusive to children of privilege. By default and because of circumstance, working class parents deploy the authors’ preferred style of “natural growth parenting,” where children receive much less direct guidance and are allowed to mature at their own pace.

In theory, this should advantage working class students, as they have the kind of experiences that cut against a culture of safetyism, but the authors acknowledge that even if the way they were parented may give working class students an advantage, other factors stand in the way of their ultimate success.

Working-class kids, as we know, and the authors note, are much more likely to be subject to trauma and severe and long-lasting adversity. Hunger and poverty and abuse impact not just academic achievement, but one’s overall mental health as well. The idea that we have “taught a generation of students the mental habits of anxious, depressed, polarized people” as embodied by a culture of safetyism doesn’t seem to apply to working-class students. They do not experience safetyism, so therefore safetyism cannot be the cause.

One of the competitive advantages of growing up under safetyism is learning the ways and wherefores of negotiating the systems in which we operate, how to “make the right argument to the right person at the right time,” as the authors put it. Jessica McCrory Calarco, author of Negotiating Opportunities: How the Middle Class Secures Advantages in School calls this “negotiated advantage,” and demonstrates how working-class students are much less likely to self-advocate, particularly around issues of grades or achievement.

Essentially, privileged kids learn how to work the refs and this pays off in terms of future opportunities.

The authors’ recommendations for how we steer clear of safetyism and give students the freedom to develop are clearly aimed towards families of privilege. Among many others:

  •  Encouraging children to walk or ride a bike to school
  •  Allowing children unsupervised play with other neighborhood kids
  •  Going to overnight camp
  •  Teaching children the “basics” of CBT and “mindfulness”
  •  Limit homework
  •  More recess
  •  A “no devices” policy in school[4]
  •  Teach debate
  •  Protect children’s sleep
  •  Have all institutions adopt the University of Chicago statement on campus speech

These all sound fine as far as they go, but I can’t help but note that they don’t go all that far. For one, they do nothing to address the circumstances which working-class students face which contribute to the increase in anxiety and depression.

Second, they do nothing to address the underlying conditions that give rise to safetyism.

Haidt and Lukianoff write convincingly about the benefits of pursuing and achieving “wisdom,” and in the final chapter give their prescriptions for creating a “wiser” society, but The Coddling of the American Mind studiously avoids questioning what forces may have made our culture at large, and elite college campuses in specific, places where the practicing of this wisdom seems like a luxury, reserved to a very precious few.

The image the authors hold of campuses as places dedicated to free inquiry and truth seeking is belied not only by the conditions on the ground, but the attitudes that students seem to bring with them about college. Books like William Deresiewcz’s Excellent Sheep and Susan Blum’s I Love Learning; I Hate School paint portraits of students who know school as a place of competition for status and achievement. Learning and personal growth are secondary.

Unlike some, Deresiewcz, Blum, and Haidt & Lukianoff do not put the blame directly on students as being personally defective. (Neither do I.) They all recognize that the conditions under which students are asked to operate are far more dispositive than individual character judgments. For this reason, it’s unfortunate that Haidt and Lukianoff don’t go looking more deeply at the system itself.

Essentially, in my view, the entire system operates as a gauntlet meant to destroy students. I’ve been saying it for at least the last five years, or back when the oldest portion of the iGen students, who allegedly have views of the First Amendment that Haidt and Lukianoff find so troubling, were just starting college and the bulk of them were still in grade school. Here’s proof

Safetyism is not a cause, but instead is a consequence of a larger problem, a symptom, not the disease itself.

The chief problem is not safetyism, but scarcity coupled with precarity.

Today’s typical age college freshmen were eight-years-old when the global economy cratered in such a way that even rich people got scared for a little while. The resulting “recovery” has only exacerbated our sense of scarcity and precarity, as the fruits of that recovery have accrued to smaller and smaller groups.

The relatively well-to-do, but not quite rich folks that populate the bulk of the “paranoid parenting” demographic understand the needle their children will be required to thread has grown smaller by the year, and any slip in achievement may result in falling out of the ranks of the economically secure.[5] Is their parenting paranoid or simply calculated to maximize their child’s economic potential?

Consider the recent incident of a group of parents from New York’s Upper West Side having a public meltdown over the possibility of increased minority representation at their school. One mother shouted at the school officials, “You’re talking about an 11-year-old, you worked your butt off and you didn’t get that, what you needed or wanted. You’re telling them that you’re going to go to a school that’s not going to educate you the same way you’ve been educated. Life sucks!” 

Is it any surprise that these particular students have experienced trickle-down anxiety? Couple this with a school culture focused not on learning but achievement, achievement often measured by high stakes, standardized measurements, and well, we get what we seem to have here.

Colleges now have dedicated programs to help students to learn the benefits of “failure.” Students need them because many have never been given the space to fail and learn from those failures.  They’ve also been given very little room to engage with and pursue their own passions in the context of school.

Students have not been coddled, they’ve been defeated. The nature of that defeat may be different depending on where students are on the socio-economic ladder and how far they’re trying to climb, but the consequences to mental and physical well-being are the same.

Almost since I first started writing in this space I have been concerned about student mental health, not only as I read the statistics on the increasing incidences of anxiety and depression that Haidt and Lukianoff cover in the book, but in talking to students directly[6] who reported having anxiety attacks in grade school, worried that they were ruining their futures with a single bad grade. 

In 1985, only 18.3% of those participating in the American Freshman National Norms Survey said they “frequently” felt “overwhelmed by all they have to do. By 2016, that number had climbed to 41%.

I have talked with students who are convinced they are facing a lifetime of penury because of the loans they must take out to even have a shot at a degree.

Almost two-thirds of college graduates leave school with debt averaging over $28,000 dollars. 

I have talked with students who are pushed to the limit and beyond, juggling work and school and family responsibilities as they try to stay above water financially, or even to secure the basic necessities of day-to-day existence.

Research by the team at the Wisconsin Hope Lab found that 36% of university students were food insecure in the 30 days preceding the survey. Thirty-six percent of university students were housing insecure over the previous year. 

Twelve percent of community college students were homeless.

Scarcity and precarity.

Perhaps we should see it as a paradox that the spasms of conflict over free speech happen almost exclusively on elite campuses – Brown, Middlebury, Yale, Cal-Berkeley – but even in these elite spaces, or rather, especially in these places scarcity is the dominant element in the school atmosphere. Competition is the institutional lifeblood, and losing feels like an economic death sentence.

Haidt and Lukianoff recount the episode at Yale where a group of students became upset over what students perceived to be a callous response to a controversy over racially insensitive Halloween costumes by Erika Christakis, a faculty member and spouse to another faculty member and “master” of Yale’s Silliman College, Nicholas Christakis.

Students ultimately directly confronted Nicholas Christakis in an incident that went viral and will continue to show up in books like The Coddling of the American Mind for time immemorial.

Haidt and Lukianoff recount a student screaming at Nicholas Christakis:

“Who the fuck hired you? You should step down! It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! It’s about creating a home here…You should not sleep at night! You are disgusting!”

Haidt and Lukianoff recognize that Yale has a history and even a present of being a hostile atmosphere to minority students, regardless, they ultimately attribute this incident to the problem of tribes and identity politics that reject the “common-humanity” politics of Martin Luther King, Jr.

But what if it’s scarcity that inflames these potential problems? What if it’s scarcity that makes joining and battling as part of a tribe a wise and even necessary decision?

Just his last spring, a black graduate student at Yale who fell asleep in a dorm lounge had the police called on her by a white graduate student. 

The black graduate student was described as “unauthorized” by the woman who summoned the authorities. This same mentality has been apparent in incidents such as the meme-worthy, “Barbecue Becky” who called Oakland police on some peaceful barbecuers, or “Permit Patty” who called police on an 8-year-old selling bottled water. 

These acts are racist regardless of the underlying conditions, but they are more likely, and more inflamed inside a culture of scarcity. The black student is explicitly told she does not belong in this place of opportunity. The white student is concerned that a black student is encroaching on the opportunity that she believes rightly belongs to her. (She could be the child of the mother shouting at the Upper West Side school board meeting.) The overriding message is that there is not enough to go around.

What good is rational debate when you believe someone is aiming for your very existence? Why should minority students abandon a style of politics that may prove their only defense against hostile institutions?

The Yale student who was yelling at Nicholas Christakis about desiring Yale to be a “home” was roundly mocked by those who see the universities as bastions of intellectualism, citadels of rational inquiry.

And they should be, but in a culture of scarcity, there is little room for such ideals when everyone is scrambling to hold onto their spot lest they slip and fall down the ladder, sealing their own doom. When the institution has a history of open hostility to minority students, it seems a big ask to lower one’s guard and leave oneself defenseless.

When there isn’t enough to go around, everything becomes contested.

Of course, these spaces are already homes for people like Haidt and Lukianoff. This is apparent in their comfort taking ownership in the book over exactly what these spaces should be, should represent. In fact, one of the reasons they are so troubled over these issues is because they perceive their home being threatened. I wonder if they imagine what it is like to so desperately desire access to that kind of home, but find that access repeatedly denied.

It is a shame that Haidt and Lukianoff, who have such apparent and sincere concern for the well-being of young people matriculating to college, have so little to offer which might help those young people have the experience the authors wish for them.

To achieve the authors’ goals, we must first address the problems of scarcity and precarity, and figure out how to make space so more people truly can feel at home inside the culture of wisdom the authors champion, where pursuing those values doesn’t feel like a sucker’s game, a voluntary disarming in the face of a determined enemy.

Hint: free college.

The Coddling of the American Mind is not the book I expected to read, and in some ways, I think it’s not the book that Haidt and Lukianoff expected to write when they started on this journey. In a way, their title snafu suggests they too experience some measure of scarcity, recognizing that the accurate but non-polarizing “Disempowered” wasn’t going to cut it in today’s attention economy. Perhaps the sacrifice of their ideals on the altar of commerce is small, but I find it notable.

They’ve provided a far more interesting contribution to the debate than their own title implies, but to my mind, there’s more digging to do to get at the roots of our shared concerns.

 

[1] A perusing of the review extracts at the book’s Amazon page shows how damaging the title is when weighed against the message of the book. Rather than focusing on the larger issues Haidt and Lukianoff believe important, many of them take the opportunity to express some version of “kids these days.”

[2] Another broad criticism that I’d like to note, but that doesn’t belong in main thrust of the argument is the tendency for Haidt and Lukianoff to put a lot of weight on big idea books like Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile and even more specifically Jean Twenge’s iGen: Why Today’s Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood – and What That Means for the Rest of Us. They treat Twenge’s book as authoritative and dispositive, but it is, in fact, highly disputed, including by other prominent psychologists. They even name check Steven Pinker’s Enlightment Now in the closing chapters, a book that has very little to do with their larger argument.

[3] There is also little to no connective tissue between the examples of “paranoid parenting” which primarily focus on the physical safety and well-being of children with the attitudes and beliefs the authors find inconsistent with positive debate.

[4] I haven’t dealt with a major part of the authors’ overall argument, the impact of smart phones and social media on young people’s mental health, but it is a very weak pillar, relying almost entirely on Twenge’s iGen before essentially admitting at the end of the chapter that we don’t know if the phones are a cause of the problems are merely symptomatic of a larger problem.

[5] These behaviors are the subject of Richard Reeves Dream Hoarders which argues that the members of the top 20% of American households are obsessed with making sure they can pass on the “best” possible futures to their kids. They are ground zero for “paranoid parenting.”

[6] Another significant weakness of the book is the extreme lack of student voices. Students are discussed and dissected, but we hear far more about what students believe and how they think from professors (and sources like Twenge’s iGen) than students themselves.



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