May 18, 2023

The Coddling of the American Mind is a great 2018 book by Jonathan Haidt, an NYU social and cultural psychologist, and attorney Greg Lukianoff, head of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

It’s about “woke” witch hunting on campuses — universities intimidated by hard left activists brooking no disagreement from their orthodoxies, mainly related to identity politics. (I previously reviewed, in Skeptic Magazine, another good book on this topic, The Tyranny of Virtue, by Robert Boyers.)

There’s a tendency in human affairs to go to extremes. The idea that if something is good, more is better. Running over moderation and restraint. Studies have shown that in a group of like-minded people, the most extreme among them will exert a gravitation-like force pulling the others toward that extreme.

What Coddling discusses is so extreme it’s off the charts; people losing all sense of perspective. A parallel to what’s happened to the Republican party.

Part of the woke ideology at issue is that everything comes down to power relationships. A kernel of truth they take to extremes. And it’s something they themselves ironically illustrate — their own empowerment being a key reason for their behavior. Central is performative “virtue signaling,” enabling them to feel superior to others, even to crush those others. Shouting down a campus speaker asserts one’s power over them.

Central too is a culture of safetyism, the idea that students (especially non-white) must be protected from the harm of exposure to any words potentially disturbing. With offenders to be punished. Another huge irony is that, rather than making campuses feel safer, this actually creates a culture of fear. With people terrified lest they utter some word falling afoul of the thought police. (Called “bias response teams” or the like on some campuses.) The phrase “walking on eggshells” appears multiple times in the book. Corroborated for me in conversation with a recent ivy league graduate who told of how a gang of “woke” activists had everyone else silenced in terror of their censorious wrath.

There’s another parallel here, to America’s gun culture. With, again, an ostensible safety notion — protection against threats of harm. When in fact the ubiquity of guns makes us all less safe. Indeed, harping on supposed self-protection (together with an overblown fixation on crime) creates another culture of fear. Manifested in a spate of recent shootings of people who innocently neared the homes of gun nuts. Shot instead of being asked, “Do you need help?” A sad aspect of American society today.

While (back to the book) higher education is shooting itself in the foot with regard to preparing students for life. Its subtitle is “How good intentions and bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure.” The bad ideas are three “Great Untruths” which the authors blame for that campus dysfunctionality:

First, “What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.” (Inverting Nietzsche’s line.) It’s the notion that students are fragile snowflakes unable to withstand the mental trauma of encountering unwelcome ideas. Of course real life offers no such protections, and campus “safety” culture serves to heighten their emotional fragility. The authors instead advocate an anti-fragility ethos, wherein dealing with challenges strengthens one’s capability for doing so.

A metaphor is peanut allergies. Why has that become such a problem? Turns out that kids exposed early to peanuts mostly develop immunity; those “protected” more likely become vulnerable. It’s parents trying to avoid peanut allergies that have caused their explosion.

The second untruth is “always trust your feelings” — what the book calls emotional reasoning. The feelings at issue are, again, responsive to what other people say. Thus we get kerfuffles over “micro aggressions.” (Another irony: the very prefix “micro” ought to clue us that something’s not a big deal.) But the book posits that what really messes with our minds is not external events themselves but how we choose to think about them; invoking the childhood “sticks and stones” chant. The authors acknowledge that words can hurt, but a strong psyche can put that in perspective. More broadly, the whole point of education should be not letting emotions control you, with greater reliance on reason.

The third shibboleth is “us against them” — dividing humankind between the good (us) and the evil (them), who must be fought and defeated. Applicable regarding Russia and Ukraine. On campuses, not so much.

It’s classic witch hunting, casting out heretics. Though no one has actually been burned at the stake, plenty of victims have been demonized as pariahs and lost their jobs. The book suggests that rather few people are actually evil, most are well-intentioned (as its subtitle indicates), but can be misguided. (Much as I denounce the pathologies of Trump cultists, they’re not wicked people either, just (very) misguided.) Thus the authors call for giving people the benefit of the doubt — charitably viewing a faux pas as a mere mistake, not a heinous crime coming from a black heart and requiring capital punishment or near.

An “us-against-them” mentality is an evolutionary inheritance, since our ancient forebears did have much to fear from other tribes. Humanity has gone far toward advancing beyond this primitive paradigm. How weird that universities where, if anyplace, you’d expect enlightened rationalism, are backwaters of such stone age behavior.

So — why did this happen?

The authors (borrowing from chemistry) see a “phase change” occurring right around 2013, when “iGen” students started college. That was the first generation whose early teens were shaped by the iPhone (introduced in 2007), and the associated social media immersion. Making those kids virtually a different species.

The book breaks down the phenomenon into six causal factors:

• Increased political polarization. It’s not just the left on the warpath; left and right extremes feed off each other, deliberately provoke each other.

• Heightened iGen anxiety and depression, especially among girls; social media the key culprit (making them feel inferiority and exclusion). This very real pathology fed into the safetyism fetish, as if students are indeed unable to handle the stresses of micro aggressions and suchlike. Very counterproductive medicine.

• Paranoid, helicopter parenting (stemming from a wildly overblown 1980’s child abduction panic), also making kids feel beset with dangers, and needing protection. Priming them for a “safetyism” campus culture. The authors hold that kids are actually antifragile by nature, so that overprotection makes them less resilient later on.

• The decline of free play, another consequence of overly fearful parenting, which again keeps kids from learning the kinds of salutary life lessons, of how to get along with others, that a more “free range” childhood imparts.

• “The bureaucracy of safetyism.” The book shows how it suits campus administrators — a class that has exploded in size and influence — to coddle students as customers to be satisfied. And to just go along with campus Torquemadas rather than undertake the thankless and dangerous task of trying to rein them in. There’s also a CYA mentality whenever the word “safety” is invoked.

• The quest for justice. To their credit, students today are much attuned to issues of morality and justice, especially what’s termed “social justice” (actually a fraught concept). But even if the ends are right, the means can often be wrong.

The authors of course conclude with some recommendations, which boil down to doing less of the bad stuff they iterate, and more that’s counter to it. Well, sure. My own answer is the Pinkerish one that, in the big picture of human history, rationality has tended to inexorably push back against irrationality. We gain in wisdom. Even witch burnings, which went on for centuries, eventually burned themselves out. We can hope that reason will ultimately prevail even in the stygian caves of U.S. higher education.