'The Coddling of the American Mind' Is Sort of Brainless

A new book repackages old complaints about college kids, while also discouraging protest.
Author:
Publish date:
Campus safe space

The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure is, as you might expect from the title, a warning against coddling. It is also, somewhat contradictorily, a brief against direct action, and an argument for quietism. Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and Jonathan Haidt, a professor at New York University's Stern School of Business, claim that they want young people to be less constrained by political correctness and more committed to free speech. From the book, though, it seems clear that the authors want students not to speak up, but to sit down and shut up—or, if they must speak, to speak decorously, in ways that won't actually challenge or change institutions.

The authors' central thesis is, as they acknowledge, a familiar generational complaint: They worry that kids today lack gumption and spine. Young people no longer walk uphill both ways to school; they just sit in their rooms staring at their iPhones and occasionally virtue-signaling. Today's generation is swaddled in a cult of "safetyism." Young people, Haidt and Lukianoff assert, believe that "what doesn't kill you makes you weaker. So avoid pain, avoid discomfort, avoid all potentially bad experiences." Kids fear adversity, when they should embrace it.

The Coddling of the American Mind may claim to stand for bold new ideas, but it does not challenge the standard media narratives around free speech on campus. Much of Lukianoff and Haidt's narrative is a revisiting of the campus free speech debates that have long been popular fodder for writers at venues like the New York Times, Reason, and The Atlantic (where the essay that became Coddling first appeared). The University of California–Berkeley protests against Milo Yiannopoulos; the Middlebury College protests against Charles Murray; the backlash to Yale University lecturer Erika Christakis' Halloween letter; the ordeal of Laura Kipnis—each narrative has been immortalized in a hundred op-eds, so the book almost starts to feel like a party game. Bret Weinstein—drink!

With David Brooks, Conor Friedersdorf, and innumerable others, Lukianoff and Haidt argue that coddled students have learned to fear free speech and dangerous ideas. When students do somehow encounter brave, heterodox truth-tellers, they react angrily, staging unreasonable—and unreasonably violent—protests. The students are fearful and dangerous; professors and administrators like Weinstein, or professor Alice Dreger, or University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer, or Haidt and Lukianoff themselves, are presented as calm, rational, and strong.

The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.

The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.

There's certainly a good case that student protesters have overreached and done harm in some instances. In the melee as student protesters demonstrated against Murray, one student pulled the hair of the professor who was supposed to interview Murray, giving the professor a concussion. Whether that incident is an example of student excessive fearfulness is perhaps an open question. But it's certainly ugly.

Haidt and Lukianoff forthrightly and reasonably condemn this violent attack. But they are less forthright in describing Murray's views. The authors say that students protested against Murray because he proposed "that differences in average IQ scores found across racial groups may not be caused entirely by environmental factors; genetic differences may play a role too." That's a deliberately euphemistic way of saying that Murray has made extremely tendentious arguments that black people are less intelligent than white people using evidence that has been widely discredited.

By soft-pedaling Murray's views, Lukianoff and Haidt avoid some uncomfortable questions. They present Murray as a reasonable scholar, rather than as a man peddling discredited race science. We can agree that protesters should not have assaulted a professor. But is protest itself wrong in this case? Are the university, the community, and the country really enriched by yet another "debate" about whether black people are fully human? Vocal protest, short of violence, is supposed to be protected in the constitution too. How can the authors assess whether protest is justified if they don't accurately explain what's at stake?

Similarly, Lukianoff and Haidt applaud Christakis' argument that students shouldn't be asked to be racially sensitive when choosing Halloween costumes. They do not quote from a thoughtful and generous letter from 2015 by Yale student Ryan Wilson taking the contrary position.

Again, Haidt and Lukianoff present Kipnis, a professor of media studies at Northwestern University, as a daring contrarian for arguing in favor of professor/student relationships and more broadly against a growing concern with sexual harassment on college campuses. Northwestern investigated Kipnis for Title IX violations after she wrote an essay in which she misstated facts about a sexual harassment complaint at Northwestern. The students alleged that Kipnis' article amounted to retaliation against students who had filed complaints against a philosophy professor for sexual assault. Students who know professors will air their cases publicly in large venues and mock them will be more afraid to bring sexual assault complaints, undermining Title IX protections. Kipnis was eventually cleared of wrongdoing, and her investigation has made her a free-speech cause for many on the right and center-right.

Haidt and Lukianoff see Kipnis as a victim too (in the past, Kipnis has argued vehemently against what she sees as feminism's promotion of female victimhood). But in making her out to be the wronged party, they similarly dismiss concerns among students about professors' sometimes-predatory behavior. For example, the authors do not detail the complaints against Peter Ludlow. In fact, they don't mention him at all. After the book went to press, 10 students accused journalism professor Alec Klein of sexual harassment. Since the #MeToo movement began, there have been numerous other instances of high-profile professors credibly accused of sexual harassment and abuse. Are their accusers coddled students who want to be "protected" from vigorous debate? Or are they brave women (and not just women) who are coming forward at potentially great personal cost to confront the powerful and demand justice?*

The authors swear by the trite slogan that adversity makes you stronger. But in practice, everyone recognizes that, while some life experiences may make you stronger, others diminish you, sometimes permanently. Being shelled in war, or suffering sexual abuse, or being wrongly imprisoned, or being continually screamed at and insulted by your boss at work—these aren't growth experiences. Some people, sometimes, can find ways to overcome hardship. But that's a credit to their strength and spirit, not a sign that everyone needs more therapeutic misery in our lives.

Lukianoff and Haidt implicitly acknowledge this. As the examples of Murray and Kipnis show, their book is filled with instances of adversity visited upon college professors—adversity that the authors cast not as a growth opportunity, but as injustice.

section-break

Lukianoff and Haidt talk a good bit about cognitive bias, repeatedly urging students not to trust their feelings, and to be aware of their presuppositions and sympathies. The authors carefully delineate their own political positions on the center left. But they don't appear to consider how their age and professions might influence their analysis. The authors are both older men who lecture at colleges; their student days are behind them. They are therefore more inclined (and certainly more incentivized) to identify with professors, and have trouble seeing the courage, resilience, and intellectual daring of students.

A good example of this bias appears toward the end of the book, when the authors approvingly quote the University of Chicago's Zimmer. "How are high schools doing in preparing students to be students in a college of open discourse and free argumentation?" Zimmer asks rhetorically. His answer is, "not well." Zimmer positions himself and the university that he leads as champions for free speech and intellectualism, dragging those barbarous, closed-minded students through the gate of knowledge.

Zimmer's self-presentation does not accurately capture his relationship with students, though, nor his relationship with free speech. Starting in 2010, student and community activists staged a lengthy campaign to try to get the University of Chicago to install a trauma center at the university hospital. Gun violence on Chicago's South Side was and remains a crisis, and when a Level 1 trauma facility closed in 1991, shooting victims often had to travel 10 miles to reach a treatment facility.

At one point, nine protesters, including one student, occupied the University of Chicago hospital demanding to speak with Zimmer. Instead of engaging in a free-spirited, open debate, Zimmer ducked the meeting, and the protesters were arrested.

Community activists, working with non-profits and students, had to fight against university indifference and stonewalling for five years before they were finally successful in forcing the university to open a trauma center. In the proper telling of this story, Zimmer does not come across as a free-speech hero boldly countenancing debate. Instead, he was a reactionary foot-dragger, refusing to hold discussions or acknowledge community needs until direct action and a rolling public relations disaster forced his hand.

Lack of trauma care on the South Side didn't make people stronger. In at least one case, it killed them. Students and young people who joined in protests against the university weren't demonstrating weakness and fear. They were working to end injustice. The Coddling of the American Mind presents student anger as unwarranted, the result of spoiled, sensitive kids not being able to withstand adversity. But often protest is based in real injustice and real hardship. If people don't cry out when they're kicked, people will keep kicking them. If you read this book in a vacuum, you might come away thinking that tenure-track professors are the only people who have ever experienced real injustice in the history of the world.

Haidt and Lukianoff also, intentionally or otherwise, co-sign right-wing narratives about campuses as oppressive left-wing bastions, in which minority and LGBT students silence conservatives through political correctness. Jason Stanley, the Jacob Urowsky professor of philosophy at Yale, points out that this effort to paint the universities as radical and authoritarian has long been used as a fascist tactic by authoritarian regimes, which fear universities precisely because they represent one of the most free spaces in society. There are (and should be) some limits on tenure protection, but most workplaces have a lot more power to fire you for what you say than universities do. The tradition of student protest is itself an important hallmark of university freedom. And, sure enough, complaints about a lack of university freedom have been used recently by conservative state legislatures to outlaw or curtail protest on campus—suppressing free speech in the name of free speech.

Of course, everybody is sometimes afraid when they shouldn't be. Everybody has the capacity for bravery. It's reasonable to ask when protest is helpful and when it is not. Haidt and Lukianoff, though, consistently see the less powerful as a real danger, while framing protest against powerful institutions as childish caterwauling. The result is that they end up telling students that the only way they can truly be brave and adventurous is by obeying authority and doing what they're told.

Rather than trembling in fear of their students, maybe professors and op-ed writers would do better to try to learn from young people speaking out against sexual assault, racism, and indifference to suffering. If student protest doesn't kill Haidt and Lukianoff, maybe it will make them stronger—and perhaps better in other ways as well.

*Update—September 14th, 2018: This post has been updated to reflect that Peter Ludlow was not fired from Northwestern University; he resigned.

Related