Knowledge Boost #2: The Coddling of The American Mind
This was not the book I expected it to be. I think the previous entry in this series may have spoiled me a
bit- as it didn't really offer a lot of concrete solutions or remedies to the problem that book explored. In these days of over politicization and ideologies, you're not really expecting a book to offer, you know, thoughtful discussion and actual solutions to a clearly defined problem, but I guess there's a pleasant exception to every rule and Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt's The Coddling of the American Mind is it.
The expansion of a popular essay the duo wrote back in 2015 for The Atlantic, the book seeks to explore the shifting landscape of American culture that saw an explosion of unrest on college campuses over the past half a dozen years or so. (As someone who's been working in Higher Ed- albeit in a somewhat unusual perch, the change has been noticeable over the course of my ten years here. I can't count the number of times I wondered where all these helicopter parents had come from- I didn't know anyone with any parents like that and it seemed, anecdotally to have just appeared out of nowhere. Turns out that's not quite true and it's a considerably more complicated question that I realized.)
The heart of this book are what Lukianoff and Haidt called "The Three Great Untruths" which are:
1. What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Weaker
2. The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always Trust Your Feelings
3. The Untruth of Us vs Them: Life Is A Battle Between Good People And Evil People
The majority of the book explores the origins of these untruths and what to do about them- but the interesting effect of these untruths according to the authors is that they are "teaching a generation of students to engage in the mental habits commonly seen in people who suffer from anxiety and depression." Which in turn, presents an interesting chicken versus egg problem that doesn't really get explored all that much: where do these untruths come from? Did shifting cultural mores develop them? Or have they always been here and the culture was infected by them? I don't know if Lukianoff and Haidt really settle on an answer, but the words 'self fulfilling prophecy' are going to spring into your head mulitple times while reading this book.
In a very organized manner, they plunge directly into their first 'Untruth', "What doesn't kill you makes you weaker."
Right of the bat, they dig into the expansion of overprotective parenting, driven in large part by a series of high profile childnappings back in the 80s-- suddenly, keeping your kids safe shouldered aside the sort of lackadaisical, 'be home when the street lights come on' parenting that my generation grew up with for parenting that overscheduled kids like crazy and is built around parental anxiety over college admissions and a cultural obession about keeping kids safe.
Lukianoff and Haidt take pains at various points throuhgout the book to note that they do think that keeping kids safe is important, You shouldn't be insane about it and encourage your kids to you know, climb into unmarked white vans because a nice stranger promised them candy. But you should find a balance to foster both independence and resiliency in your kids, because that sets them up for success better than what we've go going on now.
The first thing that rocked my world is the peanut allergy thing. There's been a huge increase in peanut allergies over the past few decades and that's not because peanuts have mutated or anything, it's just that in an overabundance of caution, parents have stopped acclimating their kids to peanuts and that means that more people are allergic to them. So, in other words (self-fulfilling prophecy here again), in an effort to keep kids safe from anaphylaxis and you know, death, parents have avoided peanuts like the plague, thus causing more severe peanut allergies. Which is completely bonkers to me.
But it also underlines the point they're trying to make: we're so concerned with safety for our children these days that we ignore the fact that life/economic progress/low crime rates/low child abduction rates- statistically anyway- means that life has been getting progressively more and more safe for children. But, because the culture has been inundated with this belief that kids have got to be kept safe no matter what, we begin to see 'mission creep' all over the place.
So, now, it's not just physical safety that we're concerned with the definition has expanded to emotional safety as well and that in turn leads to a broadening of what trauma means-- the money quote/definition here:
"the subjective experience of 'harm' became definitional in assessing trauma."
Therefore, if you feel traumatized you are traumatized.
In general, I'm not sure how to feel about that. On the one hand, I see Lukianoff and Haidt's point-- we're veering into some very destructive and harmful methods of thinking with this-- and the spike in students with mental health disorders/those seeking counseling would lend credence to it, but... trauma is inherently subjective in many ways. I would agree that there's inherent problems with an affirmational approach, but I guess it depends on the trauma?
(This would fall squarely into the category of things 'I don't know enough about' I think. If I knew more about psychology, I might be able to expand this point further, but I honestly don't.)
What these expanding definitions have left campuses with though, is a necessity to care for the welfare of their students-- but it alsp creates the culture on campus we've seen over the course of the past half-decade or so. If you can't hear opposing views because of the potential for them to invalidate your own lived experience that compromise your emotional safety that's kind of a bad thing from the point of a University. (Money quote: "I was feeling bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against my dearly and closely held beliefs.") If you can't hear opposing points of view because it makes you 'unsafe' then it sort of undermines the purpose of the University or even spending your money (or Mommy and Daddy's money, I'll grant you that) on getting a degree.
Happily, the authors bring it back around to the peanut allergy thing again: mild exposure inoculates you to the most harmful effects and let's you work through it.
Then, they move onto their next untruth: Emotional Reasoning, Always Trust Your Feelings. Here's where we get another curveball I wasn't expecting: a relatively medium dive into the world of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or CBT. The authors talk about CBT and, more importantly, talk about how all the things that the current cultural has produced: emotional reasoning, catastrophizing, overgeneralizing, dichotomous thinking, mind reading, labeling, negative filering, discounting positive and blaming are more or less all the things that CBT teaches you to avoid- and again, they underline that this is probably why we're seeing a spike in mental health problems especially on college campuses.
It's also here that I realized how refreshingly free of ideological blinders this book is-- it's not a partisan screed, it's not pushing an agenda- I don't know if it's possible to have a honest attempt to look at the source of a phenomenon and try and unpack where it came from and what to do about it- but the authors are sure giving it a good try here and it's so, so refreshing given what's out there in these days of partisanism, insanity and overall nonesense. The money quote from this section:
"Education should not be intended to make people comfortable. It is meant to make them think."
The next section deals with the last of the 'Three Great Untruths' and it's perhaps the most important one of all: The Untruth of Us vs. Them: Life Is A Battle Between Good People And Evil People.
The basic solution presented by the authors is an easy one: "There is a principle in philosophy and rhetoric called the principle of charity, which says that one should interpret other people's statements in their best, most reasonable form, not in the worst or most offensive way possible." This seems absolutely fine to me-- in fact, it seems like a reasonable position for a lot of interactions in life, never mind interactions on college campuses, but as it turns out the problem here is buried deep inside the house itself.
Before reading this book, I had never heard of Herbert Marcuse. I try now and again to dig into critical theory to see if I can wrap my brain around it, but it usually ends up giving me a headache and making me annoyed-- but here's the money 'graph on Marcuse:
"Marcuse argued that true democracy might require denying basic rights to people who advocate for conservative causes or for policies he viewed as agressive or discriminatory, and that true freedom of thought might require professors to indoctrinate their students."
Now, I can hear the sound of a thousand fingers being points (mainly by conservatives) and cries of "J'accuse!" rending the air-- and for sure, this quote, if an accurate summation of Marcuse's general thinking- is problematic as hell and goes a long way to unpacking what's wrong with the pedagogy in certain areas of higher ed. I'm willing to take this with a grain of salt, but a second quote by Marcuse only compounds the problem:
"It should be evident by now that the exercise of civil rights by those who don't have them presupposes the withdrawal of civil rights from those who prevent their exercise and that liberation of the Damned of the Earth presuppose suppression not only of their old but also of their new masters."
Yikes! In general, my general suspicion of Progressive politics is that they really don't want "power for the people" as they claim. I generally agree with the notion that America is changing and it's political system and policy-making should reflect that, but I disagree on the remedy: if Marcuse's thinking is any indiciation of their overall ideas- they seem to want to take over the cool kids table so they can be in charge. I, on the other hand, think we just need a bigger table. This is America. There should be room for everyone at the table.
But the larger point is more troubling: if this kind of thinking is baked into the pedagogy, is it any wonder, we're seeing such a rampant increase in things like call out culture and heckler's veto and generally a poisoning of the discourse in this country? (I mean, don't get me wrong: the right is guilty of a lot of this shit as well, just in different forms- but this? The stuff on college campuses? The New Left Critical Theory stuff? It's all on the left, I'm afraid.) "Tolerance for me, but not for thee" isn't going to end anywhere good and runs contrary to the basic idea of education: it's supposed to make you think.
Social media doesn't help this at all-- they touch on the idea of 'making the circle larger' which is what MLK and a lot of the old school Civil Rights folks did so well-- and they cite a Trump Rally in DC where there were some BLM folks present/counterprotesting/protesting as well. Apparently, one of the Trump folks invited one of the BLM folks to speak at their rally and you know what? It went well. It of course, got not media coverage whatsoever- but the fact there are these little green shoots of reasonableness out there amidst the social media controversies and terrible media landscape does restore my faith in humanity a little bit.
The second half of the book steps away from college campuses and what's going on there and starts to tease out some of the specific issues the authors believe are at the root of this cultural shift toward 'safetyism' and their 'Three Great Untruths' and the big two reasons they land: Anxiety & Depression and The Decline of Free Play.
The former chapter is probably the most interesting- I've had a general feeling than in about a generation or so, social media is going to be tobacco- and that's just on the basis of what it does to kids- never mind things like data mining or data rights. They're worth billions and Sean Parker no less has a pretty damning quotation: "God only knows what it's doing to our childrens brains." I don't know if they'll end up having those ever-present PSAs in the future, "JUST ELIMINATE LIES", but I'm increasingly convinced they're going to have to regulate it better than they do now- especially when it comes to kids. How they do that, I haven't the faintest idea, given, you know, the whole internet thing, but they're going to have to do that.
But here's the rub in their discussion on social media-- there's a weird twist here I didn't see coming: in limited quantities and used correctly, it might be okay. It might help kids connect with other like minded kids and develop their own interests. But it can also amplify the myriad of shitty messages that young people receive and make them worse. So overall, some carefully dosed amounts of social media might be okay. Lots of it, not so much. (As a parent, my gut instinct is: if you want your own smartphone with access to social media, get a job. When you start driving, we will provide you with the cheapest flip phone money can buy. You're welcome! Love, Dad.)
An interesting aside in this that might be worth doing some more reading about is the news that GenZ/iGen or whatever we're calling the Zoomers this week are growing up more slowly. Two money quotes:
"18 year olds now act like 15 year olds used to and 13 year olds act like 10 year olds."
...I'm not sure I buy this entirely. I feel like there's a lot of cultural messaging out there than runs the other way- especially when it comes to girls, but the evidence the authors present seems pretty convincing- and a lot of it may be due to the Decline of Free Play- which is more important than I think a lot of people realize.
(Another money quote worth dropping into this: "One out of every seven women at a US University now thinks of herself as having a psychological disorder." Yikes. Big Yikes. But it's also kind of a chicken vs egg thing-- did the culture of safetyism in broader society set students up to fail as independent 'technically adults' in University? Or is the culture of safetyism that's now apparently so entrenched on University campuses doing it? I'm not sure the authors land on a solid answer- which is probably why they- laudably, imo, go so deep into trying to pin down this phenomenon.)
The chapter on the Decline of Free Play marks the first point in the book where I felt real skepticism about what the authors were arguing. The fear of abduction thing I can probably get behind- America's Most Wanted was ever present on television growing up and the media's obsession with sensationalism and graphic murder probably doesn't help either. But the college admissions process playing a role in the decline of free play?
Yes, you read that right. Parents are overscheduling their kids and filling their days with all kinds of activities to give them a leg up on the college admissions process and to help make sure they get into the Elite school of their choice. I feel like this is a point worth keping an eye on-- ten years ago, I might have seen more truth in this point, but now, I feel like the college admissions anxiety is increasingly becoming the obsession of the upper middle class/upper class (see: the whole USC/Aunt Becky/College Admissions Scandal). For the upper crust in America, the anxiety is real: you need to get into that school- whether it's Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, USC- whatever- and Mommy and Daddy are going to make sure that you do everything possible to get into that school- up to and including breaking the law now.
For the non-upper crusties in America, higher education is a sucker's bet. Leaving aside the whole, student loan forgiveness thing- college is becoming unaffordable for the normies and although Millennials aren't having as many children as previous generations (actually, I have no idea if that's true or not- it might not be- but the cultural zeitgeist seems to think we're still dirt poor and living in our parents basements even though we're pushing 40, but oh well) I have to wonder if the attitudes toward college is going to shift dramatically in the next decade or so, barring a fairly major revolution in how higher ed is structured. (For my spawn, graduating high school is a must. We'll support them if they want to go to college, but we're not necessarily going to push them to do so either. And it's not going to be an automatic thing like it was for our generation.)
But whether you buy into fear of abduction or the college admission process as being at the root of the decline of free play the underlying point is a good one: free play leads to better social interactions.
Next, the authors look at two more aspects of this: The Bureaucracy of Safetyism and The Quest for Justice. The authors make excellent points in the former and actually unpack the topic of social justice in a fairly rational and coherent way in the latter.
The bureaucracy of safetyism pops up all over the place on the internet. There are whole blogs devoted the campus bureaucratic lunacy- but this thing from Northern Michigan University, where they threatened to punish students who discussed their suicidal thoughts with friends just shows just how deep the rabbit hole can go. The money quote from this mess: "Relying on your friends can be very disruptive to them."
But here's another money quote: "Even at public universities, 18 year olds are purchasing what is essentially a luxury product. Is it any wonder they feel entitled to control the experience?" And given that college is less about education now and more about a commodity/experience-- is it any wonder that colleges like NMU end up doing things like they did when it's essentially become a retail environment. And what's the number one rule in retail? The customer is always right-- the commodification of college breeds bureaucracy and it also goes a long way to explaning the amenities arms race that colleges have been investing in. (Which post-COVID, I think, is going to come to an end due to economic necessity more than anything else.) All of this extra stuff though? It costs money. And that money gets passed on to whom? Oh that's right- the customers.
I will give Lukianoff and Haidt extra credit for their chapter on Social Justice: it's an excellent discussion of a topic that's important but whose meaning has been buried under a ton and a half of horseshit over the years. They seem to like this definition and the more I read it, so do it-- it's taken from like the National Organization of Social Workers or something--
"Social justice is the view that everyone deserves equal economic, political and social rights and opportunities. Social workers aim to open the doors of access and opportunity for everyone, particularly those in greatest need."
It's kind of hard to argue with that definition, but they refine it a bit further: "Social jusstice is the effort to find and fix cases where distributive or procedural justice is denied to people because they were born into poverty or belong to a socially disadvantaged category." Also, this definition fits-- it's kind of cringey with language like 'socially disadvantaged category' but it's not wrong. Again, hard to argue against.
The biggest problem in the quest for justice: "Ideas may be accepted not because they are true but because the politically dominant group wants them to be true in order to promote it's preferred narrative and preferred set of remedies." This quote is also true and goes a long way to explaning why progress is so hard to come by in this country-- if it doesn't give on side of the political spectrum an advantage in the way they prefer, then it's probably not going to happen.
(Also, just a side note/weird stat: apparently White Americans vote Republican unless they were born after 1981 or between 1950-1954. Weird, but apparently true.)
Okay, so now after an exhaustive and informative discussion of just what the hell is going on in college campuses and where exactly this dramatic shift in attitudes came from, Lukianoff and Haidt bring it all together with some proposed solutions first for wiser kids and then for wiser universities.
For Wiser Kids, they seem to be all about the idea of preparing your child for the road and not the road for the child- and while some of the examples from the free range movement are a little extreme for me. (They have this sheet of paper/note they have kids give to adults if they need help out in the world... which kind of made me raise an eyebrow. I'm not against the spawn walking or riding bikes to school- eldest spawn is already bugging us about it and is excited to do it, but some of the ideas from the Free Range kids thing they talk about are a little... extreme.)
Assuming that your kids are more capable this month than they were last month is good advice for parents in general, I think. Your kids can do more than you think they can and you should always check yourself and not just assume that a kid isn't ready for something. The reality is that you don't always know if a kid is ready for something or not until you let them try- so in that sense, I have no issue with what Lukianoff and Haidt say and yeah, I would probably look at some of the resources and read some of the books they suggested no problem. Would I go all in on some of this stuff? Probably not at first- I'd need to be convinced- but ideas like, "help your kids find a community of kids in the neighborhood" appeal to me. That's what I had growing up-- why can't my kids? "Send your children to an overnight summer camp in the woods" with no devices! Also a good idea in my book!
Conquer anxiety by mastering your own thoughts, give people the benefit of the doubt, practice intellectual humility- all strike me as common sense advice, though in the days we live in, common sense advice can sort of seem revolutionary.
They also urge parents to look carefully at how your school handles identity politics... which is good advice, though personally, I don't think there's much I can do about it in my wider community. I'd prefer to be an intellectual counterweight if things swing too far one way or the other, but we're also still firmly lodged in elementary school at the moment, so it's not too much on my radar as of yet.
For Wiser Universities, the advice is equally as solid: Get away from quotes like this-
"The philosphers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it."
Yes it's from Karl Marx, but it also explains so much about Universities today. This quotation is a path to zealotry in my book. Churning out college graduates with so much zeal and so much self-imposed pressure to make a difference that it ignores the wider underlying problem: learning itself. Which brings us to the second quote worth talking about:
"Evidence really is an ethical issue, the most important ethical issue in a modern democracy. If you want justice, you must work for truth. And if you want to work for truth, you must do a little more than wish for justice."
This one is from Alice Domurat Dreger and again explains so, so much about Universities today and how they work or not, as the case may be. The author's overall advice, given these two opposing quotations:
Entwine your institutional identity with freedom of equiriy.
Endorse the Chicago Statement (which I don't think Iowa has done, interestingly enough. Will check into that.)
Pick the Best Mix of People for the Mission (yes, viewpoint diversity is a must here.)
Orient and educate for productive disagreement.
Draw a larger circle around the community- to bring your mission and what you teach to relevance in the communities your students come from- not to change the world, but to make your students more vibrant, engaged and productive citizens of the world.
Overall, I absolutely loved this book. This is a serious and well-meaning exploration of where the sudden shift in attitudes on college campuses came from and more importantly, what to do about it. The fact that the authors of this book propose comprehensive solutions to change this is so refreshing. It seems like a lot of the longform articles I read on the internet are just like, "woe is me" or dive off the deep into the realms of fanfiction with such propositions like, "let's abolish the Constitution" or "let's abolish the Senate" which as positions, are perfectly fine to hold and argue for, even if I personally think they're ridiculous, but let's be clear: those positions are hypothetical at best, delusional at worst.
What Lukianoff and Haidt have done here is a thoughtful examination of a problem and offered a potential solution that will not only solve the problem but might actually help change discourse in this country for the better, if implemented even by just a little bit. It might help control rising rates of depression and anxiety in young people. It might help build better Universities for the 21st Century. And that the thing that's brilliant about this book- you can do small things in your own home, communities and neighborhoods can do things and big institutions can do things and if you can get some people to do just a little bit of what Lukianoff and Haidt proposes, it'd make things better. You don't need to take the whole pill to solve the problem. You can chip away at it to make it smaller- and that makes this seem like a challenge we can rise and meet. My Grade: **** out of ****