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
2018 Greg Lukianoff & Jonathan Haidt
352 pages

There was a time when I was a youthful idealist, full of love and hope for humanity. These days, sometimes the only guard against misanthropy in my possession is recognition that we’re all broken creatures – in the gutter, as Oscar Wilde might say. But to follow on his epigram…if some of us are looking at the stars from that gutter, what are the rest looking at?   In The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt argue that a new philosophy has made itself predominant in American, and increasingly western, culture —  and that it rests on three untruths, promoted in schools, by parents, and enforced by the rest of society. Not only is it driving depression and anxiety, it also foments violence in the streets.  Coddling is an insightful, sometimes depressing, but ultimately hopeful look at why people have sunk to such lows in recent years, and how we can rise again to assume the dignity of human beings – and treat each other likewise. 

It begins with a visit to the guru of Stupid – or rather, ‘Koalemos’, as the authors open the book by recounting their visit to a guru in the Greek hinterlands who taught three things: 

  • What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker. 
  • Always trust your feelings. 
  • Always assume the worst about other people, for the war is divided between good and evil people.  

If the curious reader googles Koalemos, s/he  will discover that said deity was the Greek god of stupid. The guru, as it happens, is fictional;  a rhetorical invention. But his untruths are taught still – by our schools, at all levels –  and increasingly encouraged throughout society, from parenting strategies to government policy.  The untruths are manifestly destructive, sabotaging self-development and inculcating anxiety, depression, and paranoia.  One of the authors, Greg Lukianoff, reveals far into the text that he once very nearly committed suicide;  he was able to recover his mental health by learning to identify the ways his own mind was poisoning itself, through self-defeating ways of thinking. He learned to use CBT, a psychological tactic very kin to Stoic mindfulness,  to break loose of his worst inclinations.    The great untruths, he couldn’t help but notice, operated the same way his former destructive mental habits did.  

 Lukianoff and Haidt believe the initial popularity of these untruths came from an obsession for safety that overtook parents of the eighties and nineties – spurred by the crime spike of that era, and several public health crises.   But overprotection can be deadly; an immune system that doesn’t get tested early on will become self-destructive later on,  resulting in autoimmune disorders and rampant increases in food allergies.   We are, Lukianoff and Haidt write, anti-fragile creatures: we not only find strength in resistance, we need resistance and danger if we are to grow at all.    What the modern world is continuing to build for itself, however, is a world where people are expected to be completely sheltered from not only what might hurt them, but what they  imagine hurts them.   Somehow,  we have fallen from being watchful for bad actors, and become paranoid about opinions which go against ours, or disrupt our peace of mind. We’ve become like the people in Fahrenheit 451, wanting to lose ourselves in fantasy and throwing into the fire anything that disrupts the dream.

This book can be thoroughly depressing, infuriating, or otherwise dispiriting in several chapters,  but never moreso when chronicling the campus riots and unrest of the 20-teens,  as ‘student’ bodies rushed to de-platform or get fired anyone they disagreed with – including professors who were their ideological allies.  Haidt & Lukianoff document this kind of hysterical childishness on both sides,  though as one ideological bent dominates college, it pops up proportional more in this view.   But Haidt & Lukianoff are not talk-show hosts or polemicists casting a mocking eye at this fracas and scoffing at them: they  present it at the same time as they present figures on growing rates of suicide, depression, and mental health disorders among the young.  Something is deeply wrong here.  

The authors then explore various contributing factors; the cult of safety being one, but supported by a maniacal obsession with college, one that  often begins in kindergarten as overzealous parents try to get their little ones working on their college resumes before they’ve mastered the art of Play-Doh.   Another giant problem in this mental health arena is that the present generation has been wholly reared on  devices.  The ramifications of obsessive screentime are still being studied, thirteen years after Steve Jobs opened that particular pandora’s box,   but  device usage has already been linked to growing rates of depression,  as people’s doting on social media timelines convinces them that they’re not as popular, and their lives not as good, as the peers around them.  

Is there a way out of this?  Lukianoff & Haidt hope so.  They note that some of the masters of social media are pretending to care about their products’ role in damaging mental health and fomenting radicalization, and  there are growing enclaves of people who realize how unsustainable giving into childish mobs on campuses every other week is – who realize that the purpose of a university is to push young people to become more than they are, to refine their dross – not to patronize their worse impulses.  There are parents, too, who realize children need freedom to grow….that exercising autonomy is  a necessary experience. Unfortunately, parents in this regard have to work in tandem with local governments, since there exist cretins masquerading as humans who will call the police if they see a child playing outside on her  own. Ultimately,  Haidt and Lukianoff write,  Americans need to restore the culture of dignity over the culture of victimhood – to push for social justice along common identity, not common enemy, lines.  Treat a man as your enemy and he will become one.         

The Coddling of the American Mind is a most helpful book, helping readers understand the chaos around us without dismissing its participants as   universal bad actors. Much of what has happened, what continues to happen, is driven by people with the best of intentions – but good intentions count for little when the consequences are quite this bad.  Although it’s not as eye-opening and insightful as The Righteous Mind,  Haidt’s previous work, it’s not too far from its neighborhood.  It is especially relevant into today’s hysteria over COVID and racially-linked police deaths, as people tar and feather those whose opinions differ from their own.   We can have calm discussions on the efficacy of masks, or on the nature of death-by-cops,  or we can scream “YOU JUST WANT PEOPLE TO DIE” at each other. One course is more helpful.

How Trigger Warnings are Hurting Mental Health on Campus”,  Greg Lukianoff & Jonathan Haidt
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Jonathan Haidt.
Why We Hate and How to Heal, Ben Sasse

About smellincoffee

Citizen, librarian, reader with a boundless wonder for the world and a curiosity about all the beings inside it.
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17 Responses to The Coddling of the American Mind

  1. Jillian says:

    “as people tar and feather those whose opinions differ from their own.” — INDEED. It is becoming ridiculous. & what’s scary is the people doing it always buoy up their opinions on a plane of self-righteousness. People need to calm down & listen to Harper Lee, who suggests taking a stroll in one anothers’ shoes. I think many people want to accomplish far more good than the other side gives them credit for. I mean on opposing sides — often both sides believe they are championing what is right & honorable. The issue is we have many different opinions about what is honorable & just. If we don’t actually TALK to one another, how can we possibly see why others find our own definition of justice (or whatever) limiting? People are so defensive these days they don’t listen to anything — they just go out with swords flying pell-mell in the name of humanity, causing great sound & fury & accomplishing nothing. Madness.

    I actually have an optimistic view of humanity. I think most people are basically good. But we are SO INCLINED to follow leaders without thinking, to build up walls, to fail to see we might be benefited by listening to what emotionally seems WRONG to us, that we are not living up to our potential, & are becoming self-destructive.

    Folks need to read. That would fix everything. 🙂

    • Agreed! Reading is one way to find perspectives other than our own — even if we tend to read only from one side, different authors invariably have slightly different perspectives, and those can lead to fresh connections.

      I think part of the problem today is that we exist in a world of abstraction — people pay more attention to imagined communities online & over the airwaves than they do their neighbors. It’s MUCH easier to hate someone when you don’t know them for a flesh-and-blood creature, when you don’t know who their mom was or where their people were buried. Maybe one day we’ll find a way to cope with this modernity business. Until then, we have to look for sanity where it can be found!

  2. Brian Joseph says:

    I need to read this book.

    It seems full of ideas that I am interested in. The topics are important. Many of these issues, especially the radicalism, the demonization of disagreement, the no – platforming, etc are related to what many are calling postmodernism. It has a indeed gotten worse since the publication of this book.

    • I don’t know about the postmodern connection — I tend to associate postmodernism with meaninglessness. Perhaps that’s not accurate — but at any rate, the amount of violent passion we’re seeing can’t stem from meaningless, unless it’s our groping wildly in the dark for some purpose..

  3. Cyberkitten says:

    I am actually trying to get my head around what on earth is happening in the US presently. This might give me at least part of the puzzle! [lol]

    • If you figure it out, let me know! I’m curious myself. XD

      • Cyberkitten says:

        It’s definitely cultural (I think!). My hypothesis is that there’s an on-going clash between your countries cultural myths and hard reality – but that’s just a guess ATM. I hardly know enough about your country to make those kind of sweeping assessments [lol]. I have 5-6 VSI books lined up on US culture & history with another 10 in the pipeline. That might give me a base to work from…. [grin]

      • There are VSI books just about us? Oh, boy…

  4. Sharon Wilfong says:

    Excellent review. It does seem as if many people have gone insane and refuse to listen to reason. I wonder where the source is from. I wonder if it is because people forfeited their responsibility in raising their children and believed the state could do a better job, via public school and universities.

    But also, we have multi generations now who are coming from fractured families. We see a growing population that have not been raised in a stable environment and have grown up emotionally stunted.

    I don’t know. Ultimately I believe it is a spiritual problem. Where the spirit of God is rejected, false gods come rushing in to fill the void.

    • I think the 21st century has made most of us passive consumer-creatures, with no idea of what agency or liberty once meant. There’s probably a chicken & egg relationship between that and government expanse. I’ve heard the idea, and am somewhat sympathetic to it, that the economic evolution of the 19th and 20th century — which took people away from independent homesteads & small businesses, and created instead the age of big business & agri-tycoons — are in large part responsible for seperating us from meaningful work, agency, etc. That’s not a cat we can stuff back in the bag, enough: no one will return to those less productive, if more meaningful, times without some kind of catastrophe forcing them to. My hope is that the technology of the 21st century will help people become actors once again….creating alternatives to government schools, alternatives to meaningless jobs, etc. I don’t know that it will go that way, but the possibility is at least on the table. I’ve got a couple of related reads coming up! (Three, actually, but one of them is a bit niche.)

      • Cyberkitten says:

        Sounds like Hayek… I was reading about his ideas today…..

      • I’m doing well if I sound like Hayek! I haven’t read much of his work beyond “Road to Serfdom”, but that was on government & economics, less so on culture. There’s another collection of his works that I’m interested in called “The Fatal Conceit”. He has this magnificent phrase..”the pretence of knowledge”. If I’m ever a filthy rich billionaire with a boat, I’m going to name it Pretence of Knowledge. Unfortunately that name is too long for Sid Meier’s Pirates.

      • FWIW, I mostly hear that idea from writers like Hillaire Belloc. He wrote an interesting book called “The Servile State” which argued to a leftist audience that industrial capitalism & industrial socialism reduced humans to the same servile role. Hard book to get my head around considering when it was written — I think I read in 2014?

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