May 31, 2020

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The Coddling of the American Mind – Part 1 (Divest This!)

One of the best books of 2018 provides some answers to those bewildered by the crazy happenings on college campuses, Israel-related and not, over the last few years. 

The Coddling of the American Mind, written by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt expands on an article the authors wrote for The Atlantic in 2015, proposing an explanation for anti-free-speech phenomena they then saw metastasizing on college campuses.

Lukianoff is the President of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), an organization created to fight attempts to stifle free speech at colleges and universities.  Historically, the group supported students dealing with campus speech codes being imposed by college administrators. But starting in the early 2010s, Lukianoff began to notice that many demands to limit what people could say or think were coming not from those attending, rather than running, schools.

Such attacks on free speech have taken on many forms, from attempts to label impolite or insensitive behavior as “microagressions” that required redress (and sometimes punishment), to “trigger warnings” alerting students that dangerous ideas were about to be read or discussed, to “de-platforming” speakers with controversial things to say.

Lukianoff also noticed how explanations students provided in their demands for controls of (and over) what could be uttered were couched in the language of safety.  “Safe spaces” where students could protect themselves against ideas they didn’t like is one example of what he observed, but he also noticed how controversial ideas were being branded as a form of violence, against which students needed protection.

In addition to his professional work, Lukianoff spent years working through depression with the help of a technique called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).  Part of CBT involves identifying “cognitive distortions” that adversely impact reasoning.  These include “catastrophizing,” magnifying the significance of small setbacks in ways that maximize personal psychological damage, or “jumping to conclusions” interpreting other people’s behavior in the worst possible light. As anti-speech activists on campus talked about words as a form of violence, or interpreted simple rudeness as punishable bigotry, Lukianoff and his co-author began to see destructive cognitive distortions playing out within whole communities, rather than individuals.

That co-author was Jonathan Haidt, best-selling author of The Righteous Mind and The Happiness Hypothesis, who was just the person to elaborate on the broader meanings behind the kind of misbehavior we have seen unfold at school after school during the last decade.  A thoughtful social-science researcher struggling to help society move past the “we vs. they” mentality that is destroying individuals and institutions, Haidt shares his co-author’s goal of containing and, ideally, turning back the tide of horribles currently infecting centers of learning.

“Why now?” the authors ask as they searched to discover the source of behavior not seen before start of this decade.  What happened that might explain not just student actions but the language of danger, violence and safety ascribed not to acts but to ideas?

The generation of students who entered college during this period were not Millennials, but a post-Millennial generation that had grown up with different historical touchpoints than most of you reading this.  Infants and toddlers at the time of 9/11, this generation understood the War on Terror as a slogan that seemed to have gotten American into intractable, inexplicable wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  The Cold War was history, not a living memory, much like World War II is to my generation.  If political identity begins to form during adolescence, this generation’s identity evolved during an era of increasingly heated rhetoric and uncompromising ideology Haight warns could destroy democracy. 

This generation also grew up when parenting practices were changing to embrace what the authors call a culture of “Safety-ism” in which keeping children safe at all cost spread from protecting them from physical harm (such as being kidnapped or hurt in a fight) to protecting them from psychological dangers (like poor grades or the fallout from interpersonal disputes between peers).  Previous generations had to suffer the consequences of their actions, but in an age of Safety-ism, adults and authority figures were there to smooth the way if anything went wrong in a young person’s life.

Changes in parenting behavior led to changes in what this generation experienced during childhood as free, self-organized play was replaced by “playdates” scheduled between parents, and activities where children got together to engage in sports, arts or other fun planned and supervised by adults.

The Internet fits into the story as well.  As careful researchers, Haidt and Lukianoff are not ready to propose theories beyond what early research shows about the impact smartphones and social media are having on the young.  But it’s hard to not notice how many stories they tell involving “thought-crimes” originating in Facebook postings and mobs being organized on Twitter.

Moving from this background, the authors tap a number of ideas I’ve written about previously, such as a Culture of Victimization trying to supplant a Culture of Dignity.  For in a victimhood culture, people are fighting for as high a position in the hierarchy of victimhood as possible, while also being ready to turn to authority figures (such as college administrators) to provide them the protection other adults have afforded this generation their entire lives.

In addition to providing cogent analysis, the authors also include a detailed appendix of recommendations for parents, universities and the wider society to help kids develop the kind of anti-fragility that should be the nature of all young people hoping to become genuine adults. 

Fights over Israel and the Middle East that have roiled campuses for several decades are not addressed specifically in the book, but the insights of Coddling can be combined with other analysis to help better flesh out what’s happening on campuses and, ideally, what can be done to solve this problem.  And it is to this analysis that I shall turn to next.

We have lots of ideas, but we need more resources to be even more effective. Please donate today to help get the message out and to help defend Israel.

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