The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is an important book that explains many of our contemporary social and academic ills. It argues that battles over freedom of expression, increasing anxiety and depression in youth, and political polarization are all connected to a set of ideas about childhood and educational practices. The book fits with many of my priors, so that likely colors how I think about it. Nevertheless, the arguments presented here are worth examining and exploring.
Lukianoff and Haidt identify three ideas, what they call Great Untuths, that are main culprits:
The Untruth of Fragility: the idea the kids are easily damaged or harmed. Parents and society must protect kids from any and all dangers and risks.
The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings: if you feel it to be true, it must be true.
The Untruth of Us vs. Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people. We are always pitted against another tribe that is out to destroy us.
The gist of their argument is that these untruths took root in the 80s and led parents, teachers, and even children themselves to think that kids need constant monitoring and protection from all kinds of dangers and risks. This ‘safetyism’ led to reductions in free play, making it harder for kids to develop interpersonal conflict skills, personal risk assessment, self-confidence, and self-reliance. Moreover, the actual effects of these well-intentioned motives to protect kids made them more anxious and more at risk since they didn’t learn how to deal with potentially dangerous and risky situations.
These untruths also encouraged various distorted ways of thinking about one’s self and others, leading to greater anxiety and depression, as well as a perception that disagreement about ideas and values posing a threat to one’s well-being and identity. If you think you are fragile and easily harmed, and think your feelings are an adequate guide to truth, then someone else expressing a different set of ideas can easily be interpreted as an existential threat from which you need protection.
When the kids raised under these untruths — the so-called iGen or Generation Z — went to college they bring these distorted ways of thinking and demands for protection with them. The argument continues that these trends combined with other trends in parenting, education, and various concerns about social justice is what has lead to the conflicts we see on campuses and elsewhere today. Haidt and Lukianoff marshall social science evidence to make their case, building their arguments on their respective experiences in psychology, education, and parenting. I find it convincing and conclusive, but you should read the book to evaluate their arguments yourself.
As a college educator, I see a lot of what Haidt and Lukianoff are talking about. I see it in the attitudes and behaviors of my students. I also see it in the reactions of university administration and how it tries to respond to the demands and needs of these students. And to be honest, I see it it in my son and my own parenting.
One of the aspects I like about the book is its positive outlook. Though they are diagnosing and describing disturbing trends, they don’t see impending doom or catastrophe.
They challenge us to see the counters to the untruths:
Kids are anti-fragile: they need to be exposed to and adapt to their environment so that they can deal with the inherent risks in that environment. “Prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child”
Emotional reasoning is fraught with bias and error: we need to be careful about the judgments we make and be aware of the cognitive biases we may have.
Tribalism is a dangerous way to approach life, often leading to greater conflict. Better to learn to use our inherent tribal instincts to reduce conflict by working to see our common identity.
By recognizing these truths, Haidt and Lukianoff provide a path out of the current state of things. They leave the reader with both hope and a set of intellectual tools.
The book itself is accessible and a quick read. There is a lot of interesting and useful information, especially for parents and educators. This is not an academic book. Indeed, I think academics might find it a bit thin in some regards. There are plenty of sources and citations, but it is not written to satisfy the demands of academic rigor and comprehensiveness. But that’s not what Haidt and Lukianoff are looking to do here. It is more of a self-help guide for parents and educators. To help us see the problem and provide some advice on how to change and adjust our practices. In that regard, they are successful.
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