The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting up a Generation for Failure
© 2018 Greg Lukianoff & Jonathan Haidt
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