There’s reason to be skeptical of arguments about “college kids these days.” Whether the subject is trigger warnings, “victimhood culture,” or the supposed death of free speech, college students are an easy punching bag and target for generalizations. Because campus blowups have become more common in recent years, and far more visible thanks to social media, there’s been a glut of half-baked perspectives about what they represent.
I suspect that some left-of-center readers are going to be quick to shove The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, the new book by Greg Lukianoff, the head of the campus free-speech group the Foundation for Individual Rights and Education and Jonathan Haidt, an NYU social psychologist, into the hot-take pile — but that would be a mistake. It’s a generally nuanced, carefully constructed book worth grappling with. Even if its core argument falls a bit short.
That core argument, which was birthed from a similarly titled 2015 Atlantic cover story, is that “a culture of safetyism … [swept] through many universities between 2013 and 2017” (emphasis theirs). By safetyism, Lukianoff and Haidt mean a “culture that allows the concept of ‘safety’ to creep so far that it equates emotional discomfort with physical danger,” and which therefore “encourages people to systematically protect one another from the very experiences embedded in daily life that they need in order to become strong and healthy.” Naturally, the book is replete with examples of how safetyism and its symptoms have ostensibly run amok. They range from overreactions to supposedly offensive emails sent by professors or administrators (at Claremont McKenna, Yale, and, most spectacularly, Evergreen) to the genuine violence at UC-Berkeley (in response to far-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos) and Middlebury (protesting Bell Curve author Charles Murray) to students at various institutions seeking to ban other, more moderate conservative figures from speaking on the grounds that their presence would render students “unsafe,” or language to that effect.
The authors tell this story in a variety of ways, but two main narrative goals stick out: The first is to impart what Lukianoff and Haidt refer to as “The Three Great Untruths” that are embedded in safetyism and which are therefore being taught to (some) American kids these days. First, there’s “Untruth of Fragility,” or the idea that minor, everyday forms of adversity — e.g., a conservative speaker coming to your campus — pose real threats to one’s well-being. There’s the “Untruth of Emotional Reasoning,” or the idea that just because you feel a certain way, doesn’t mean that feeling is necessarily true (“I am upset about that conservative, and feel her presence is a threat to my safety, and therefore it is”). And there’s “Untruth of Us Versus Them,” or the idea that the whole world can be neatly divided into good people versus bad people (“Anyone who supports the idea that the conservative in question should be allowed to speak is an enemy of progress and marginalized people”).
The second main goal of Coddling is to run down the “six interacting explanatory threads” that, according to Lukianoff and Haidt, can at least partially explain the ostensible rise in campus safetyism and its attendant outbursts: increasing political polarization at the national level; the well-documented uptick in anxiety and depression in young people; overprotective parenting of kids, particularly in families that are middle-class and richer; the decline of free-play opportunities for some American children; rapidly growing, bloated, risk-averse campus bureaucracies; and “The Quest for Justice,” or the fact that young people today are living in a time of what feels like a disproportionate number of high-profile social-justice-related news stories.
Which is all to say, there’s a lot in this book. And it’s worth pointing out that “coddling” probably doesn’t do justice to the full scope of the arguments Lukianoff and Haidt make and the stories they tell. The authors themselves write that they have “always been ambivalent” about the word, which they say entered the equation at the suggestion of an Atlantic editor. While they do argue that kids, particularly richer ones, often end up being raised and schooled in ways that shield them from the sorts of minor adversity and exploration that helps generate resilient, self-sufficient adults, they are quick to point out that lower-class kids are just as likely to experience the sorts of traumatic childhood events that contribute to mental-health problems.
So while Coddling is already being caricatured as two middle-aged white guys complaining about how pampered “kids these days” are — recent reviews in both Pacific Standard and the Washington Post simply pretend Lukianoff and Haidt don’t make that crucial distinction between the very different sorts of challenges faced by kids of different social classes, for example — the book is actually more thoughtful than that. To take one more example, Lukianoff and Haidt repeatedly highlight the extent to which right-wing provocation and political correctness have exacerbated the disaster that is the national political discourse, helping to make everything a lot more hysterical and threat-infused than it needs to be. They point out that the stronger sense of danger some college kids feel around campus political debate is partially justified in light of how conservative groups like Turning Point USA employ a strategy of amplifying often trivial examples of “extremism” on the left — say, an average undergrad getting upset about politics, as they are wont to do — at which point that poor individual is inundated with harassment and threats on social media. Even in those few situations that can accurately be described as full-blown far-left campus disasters, like the prolonged chaos that reigned at Evergreen, Lukianoff and Haidt dutifully point out how right-wing culture warriors have, every step of the way, worsened things.
As the authors themselves point out, in a certain sense, what we’re seeing isn’t entirely new. “Students in the 1960s and 1970s often tried to keep speakers off campus or prevent speakers from being heard,” they write. So campus blowups themselves aren’t new. But, they continue, there’s an important distinction between then and now: “Students [back then] wanted to block people they thought were espousing evil ideas (as they do today), but back then, they were not saying that members of the school community would be harmed by the speaker’s visit or by exposure to ideas. And they were certainly not asking that professors and administrators take a more protective attitude toward them by shielding them from the presence of certain people.” So what is new, they argue, “is the premise that students are fragile.”
Surely some students are projecting exactly the sort of fragility and demand for protection Lukianoff and Haidt bemoan — there are plenty of anecdotal examples. But there’s a deep risk here of overstating the extent of the problem given how easy it is for relatively minor, forgettable events to get blown up by social-media dynamics. Twenty-five years ago, would any of us have been aware that Oberlin students argued that the banh mi served at a campus dining hall was an act of “cultural appropriation”?
Lukianoff and Haidt do have a response to these objections: They argue, in the book and elsewhere, that today’s college students — who are mostly members of iGen, born in 1995 or later, rather than members of my much-maligned millennial generation — are actually less in favor of free speech than their older siblings and parents. But as Jeffrey Sachs and others have pointed out, the data don’t really support the idea that there’s something radically new going on vis-à-vis young people and free speech. And as I noted in 2015, for decades there’s been a general tendency for about 40 percent of the American population and all sorts of different subgroups of that population to be in favor of the government banning certain forms of speech. It’s the “certain forms” that changes over time — yesterday’s communist is today’s racist.
That leaves us mostly with anecdotes. Some of those anecdotes are pretty wild, sure, but they’re still just anecdotes. So no amount of nuance can obscure the fact that Lukianoff and Haidt’s core claim — that something genuinely new has popped up on college campuses since 2013 or so, and that it can be explained by their “six interacting explanatory threads” — is a tough thing to prove empirically, and they don’t quite do that in Coddling.
A great deal of The Coddling of the American Mind, however, can be enjoyed whether or not one agrees that safetyism has taken over some college campuses. That’s because the book traverses a fairly wide terrain (albeit in a way that never goes too deeply into any one area), drawing on sociology, developmental psychology, ancient philosophy, and a bunch of other subjects. And there’s plenty of solid, research-backed advice for parents raising kids of all ages.
Lukianoff and Haidt’s most interesting and provocative claim is that certain approaches to political disagreement increasingly embraced in campus settings run exactly contrary to the tenets of cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT — a solidly evidence-backed therapeutic approach centered on rewiring negative, distorting thought patterns. If your tendency after bad romantic luck is to get mired in a cycle of No one loves me and I will die alone, for example, a CBT-focused therapist might help you realize that these aren’t necessarily fair conclusions to draw, but are rather examples of catastrophizing (overextrapolating, in a negative way) or perhaps mind-reading (imagining you know what others are thinking). CBT preaches that the way our mind interprets the world can affect our mental health, and that we can harness our mental flexibility for the better — to a certain extent we have freedom to interpret events in more adaptive, less distorting ways.
For Lukianoff, this is a personal subject — he has suffered from severe depression, including suicidal ideation, and credits CBT with making his life tolerable. He was “troubled,” write the authors, “when he noticed that some students’ reactions to speech on college campuses exhibited exactly the same distortions that he had learned to rebut in his own therapy” [emphasis theirs]. Lukianoff and Haidt aren’t the only ones to have noticed this. In a rather comprehensive 2017 paper that I covered here on the problems with how “microaggressions” are conceptualized and taught on campuses, for example, the clinical psychologist Scott Lilienfeld noted that “many of the implicit messages posited by” Derald Wing Sue, a Columbia counseling professor who is one of the godfathers of microaggressions research and training, seem to encourage the exact bad cognitive habits CBT seeks to dispel. For example, Sue claims that the question “Where were you born?” when directed at an Asian-American, is a microaggression “because it reflects the assumption that recipients are ‘different, less than, and could not possibly be, ‘real’ Americans.’” But a competent CBT therapist, Lilienfield notes, would discourage such thinking — rather, CBT therapists would likely “maintain that leaping to this inference without attempting to check it out constitutes mind reading, as the intent of this question is compatible with a host of interpretations.” That doesn’t mean it’s never the case that “Where are you from?” is asked in a way that could reasonably constitute a microaggression — it means that training students to assume that it is is to instill bad cognitive habits.
This is an important point to consider, and Lukianoff and Haidt argue convincingly that microaggressions and other concepts from contemporary social-justice discourse really do take the opposite approach of CBT to dealing with questions of ambiguity, intent, and other important concepts. That is, these ideas actively teach and reward catastrophizing, mind-reading, and other common distortions that psychologists have long recognized are harmful cognitive habits. In some cases, this has reached farcical levels. As Conor Friedersdorf explained in October of 2017, running down the results of a CATO/YouGov survey, college kids are regularly taught that certain utterances are offensive that most members of the supposedly harmed groups themselves don’t actually find offensive:
Telling a recent immigrant, “you speak good English” was deemed “not offensive” by 77 percent of Latinos; saying “I don’t notice people’s race” was deemed “not offensive” by 71 percent of African Americans and 80 percent of Latinos; saying “America is a melting pot” was deemed not offensive by 77 percent of African Americans and 70 percent of Latinos; saying “America is the land of opportunity” was deemed “not offensive” by 93 percent of African Americans and 89 percent of Latinos; and saying “everyone can succeed in this society if they work hard enough” was deemed “not offensive” by 89 percent of Latinos and 77 percent of African Americans.
Microagressions are a culture-war punch line at this point, so it’s easy to roll one’s eyes, and argue we should move on to more important things. But surely the way kids are taught to deal with offense and conflict matters. In many cases, the students being exposed to microaggression curricula — or to other, similarly half-baked social-justice ideas — are, in light of current demographic and mental-health trends, going to have histories of mental-health problems, be first-generation college students, or both. The idea that it’s good or progressive or justice-furthering to tell vulnerable kids that anodyne, yay-America utterances not viewed as offensive by the vast majority of members of minority groups could literally be killing them — an actual claim of flawed research that posits a link between microaggression exposure and suicide (Lilienfield’s paper explains why it’s flawed) — and that they should interpret these statements in as negative a manner imaginable, is extremely irresponsible. Especially when you consider the fact that if a kid exposed to these ideas subsequently sought out mental-health help, their therapist, if he or she were competent, would simply tell them to do the opposite of what they’d been trained to do by their microaggressions teachers: stop assuming the worst in ambiguous statements.
It’s not just microaggressions. Lukianoff and Haidt also argue, pretty compellingly, that other aspects of safetyism encourage the same sort of anti-CBT work. To take one of many examples, when the conservative writer on crime and policing Heather Mac Donald came to Pomona College, a group of students wrote that “If engaged, Heather Mac Donald would not be debating on mere difference of opinion, but the right of Black people to exist.” This idea, that to participate in certain debates is to debate the right of certain groups to exist, is everywhere these days — I’ve encountered it in plenty of non-campus settings — and it is catastrophizing: Mac Donald has ideas about crime and policing that many left-of-center people, myself included, disagree with vehemently — but engaging with her is not engaging on the question of whether African-Americans will be allowed to continue to exist. Lukianoff and Haidt’s argument isn’t that college students are crazy, or that they aren’t reacting to real problems and real injustices — it’s that it hurts them for administrators and other adults to fail to push back, when appropriate, against this sort of language and framing.
Throughout The Coddling of the American Mind, Lukianoff and Haidt criticize the tendency, in some campus circles, toward all-or-nothing, good-versus-evil thinking. And, at the risk of getting a little bit meta, it feels like these tendencies have descended on the broader left-of-center conversation about campuses and social-justice discourse a bit.
In general, the left portrays the debate as looking roughly like this: On the one side are students, many of them marginalized, who express themselves in ways that might sometimes be immature or over-the-top, sure, but who should be respected because their feelings are a genuine, accurate reflection of a very messed-up world; on the other side are concern-trolls like Haidt and Lukianoff who claim to be worried about the Discourse or Nuance or Intellectual Diversity or whatever other centrist buzzword, but who are really, deep down, just upset that marginalized students are expressing themselves with any assertiveness at all.
This narrative forces everyone to choose a side in an unproductive way. It’s possible to genuinely be concerned about societal injustice and to believe that certain trends in social-justice-speak aren’t helpful (or are even harmful). It’s possible — again — to vehemently disagree with Heather Mac Donald while disagreeing with the claim that to debate her is to debate the right of black people to exist, and that she should therefore be deplatformed. Heather Mac Donald will continue to exist, will continue to write and speak, regardless of whether she is barred from speaking on a particular campus. A good-faith critic of hers can claim, honestly and without a trace of concern-trolling, that it’s better to teach justifiably angry students to rebut her arguments than to help them pretend they can disappear her from the discourse.
Again: This conversation is important. It’s about how young people are taught to deal with political differences, injustice, and the frustrations of coming of age politically in a world that is often quite cruel and resistant to change. Lukianoff and Haidt’s claims deserve to be evaluated on their merits, not as part of some flattened, memeified skirmish in a culture war.