Saturday, August 7, 2021

review of Lukianoff & Haidt's "The Coddling of the American Mind"

The Coddling of the American Mind is centered around three myths: 

1.) Fragility: What doesn't kill you makes you weaker.

2.) Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings.

3.) Us vs. Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people 

Lukianoff and Haidt (LH) argue that these three contradict "ancient wisdom", modern research on well-being, and harms individuals and communities (4, 263). (Other than that, they're terrific!) They're particularly concerned about their impact on our youth, education (especially college), and democracy (5). 

Lukianoff is a lawyer/activist with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) on 1st Amendment issues, especially at universities. His observations about college students and free speech were the chief catalysts for his work with Haidt. Administrators had always been the most conservative on speech issues, with faculty and especially students clamoring for a more liberal approach to free expression. But starting in 2013, he noticed a dramatic trend with students increasingly wanting to restrict speech. FIRE has been tracking "disinvitation" efforts since 2000. The numbers were consistent until 2009 and then especially in 2013-- with a big jump in efforts on the Left (47). 

Concepts such as "triggered" also got rolling then and the complaints were "medicalized"--  claims that it interfered with student ability to function. This connects to a theme throughout the book: the importance of "cognitive behavioral therapy" (CBT), which relies on taking small direct/discrete steps to address (real or perceived) threats. You don't just talk about it; you do something about it (34). It's not so much the thing (which you may not be able to control) as your response to the thing (which you can control). 

This angle is important to Lukianoff personally, since it helped him deal with his own depression. And it's something of interest to Haidt professionally, as a professor of "social psychology." (Most notably to me, he has an excellent book on religion and politics, The Righteous Mind (7-8). Founded by Aaron Beck in the 1960s, CBT says "it is possible to break the disempowering feedback cycle between negative beliefs and negative emotions." (37) CBT requires skill and time, but the evidence that it works is "overwhelming". LH cover nine common errors that CBT looks to address (38)-- most of which are connected to the three myths that drive the book.  

Unfortunately, the opposite of CBT is popular today: more shelter instead of dealing directly with threats and concerns. The irony: psychologists typically see trigger avoidance as a symptom of the underlying problem and certainly not its treatment (29)! LH also note that learning in general-- and college education in particular-- rely on a heavy dose of CBT within the process-- and therefore, that the myths are a threat to education (39-40). 

The Myths

On the myth of "fragility", LH open with the famous example of peanut allergies which were exacerbated by keeping so many children away from peanuts (20-21). But the key concepts here are borrowed from Nassim Talib who describes people and organisms as "fragile" (inherently so), "resilient" (inherently so), or "anti-fragile" (able to develop from fragile to resilient). Talib argues that humans are anti-fragile. It's not that difficulties make you weaker; they make you stronger. (A key caveat: too much difficulty-- chronic or acute-- can make you weaker.) As such, we prepare children for the road, not the road for the child (23); we don't see people as candles who need a wind-free zone (28); and as I often pray: "Lord, give us stronger backs not lighter loads". 

Another problem has been the increasing prominence of "safety-ism" (30). Trouble has been defined in increasingly subjective ways and the thresholds have been defined down (e.g., from pain to "trauma"). Another recent example: Some of our society's struggles with Covid are evidently a function of safety-ism. Related to this is the use of "emotional reasoning" (an oxymoron?) and the emergence of "micro-aggressions". On the latter, people imagine the worst about others (while assuming the best about themselves). And they exaggerate problems, labeling them as "aggression" which assumes or ignores motives. 

What are the implications for a college campus? Students "will come to see the world-- and even their university-- as a hostile place where things never seem to get better. If someone wanted to create an environment of perpetual anger and intergroup conflict, this would be an effective way to do it...likely to engender precisely the feelings of marginalization and oppression that almost everyone wants to eliminate." (46) It also serves to "foster an external locus of control" which is intuitively and statistically connected to less satisfaction and success (46). 

The third myth is a dogmatic view of good/evil: with me as the good (of course) and some others (usually convenient, caricatured, and simplistic scapegoats) as the evil. LH note that the resulting tribalism is inevitable to some extent (and even serves some good purposes-- e.g., as we take particular care of those around us). But we learn to live healthier lives by avoiding the excesses of tribalism (59). And of particular concern, we avoid the mistake of seeing others as "common enemies", generally focusing on our "common humanity" instead (60-62). The history of "common enemies" is not pretty-- with easy applications to the Nazis and Marxism. Today, identity politics has embraced this approach-- what amounts to a bad religion without mercy, grace, and redemption. The realities of life are more complex; common enemy and common humanity are too simple; all of us are a mix of good and evil, whether we can it "sin nature" (as in Christianity) or give it another label.  

How did we get it here and how do we get better? 

The middle part of the book focuses on universities as a center of this evolution-- or at least its most-evident fruit. Chapter 4 details "Intimidation and Violence" as a weapon of the illiberal on college campuses. I had forgotten the sad and ironic story of Berkeley as both the leaders in free speech and then, anti-free speech (81-86). They also recount Charles Murray's run-in with fascist students at Middlebury. And they close with Van Jones' awesome quote (which runs from 1:08-3:00 at the link) on safe spaces and "going to the gym." (96-97) It reminds me of Mr. Tumnus' quote about Aslan: He's not safe, but he's good. The ultimate goals are not overarching safety and short-run protection; the goals are strength and goodness. (LH [193] also use a great quote from SCOTUS Chief John Roberts [runs from 1:57-3:14 at the link].) 

In chapter 5, we get some inside baseball on academics and problems caused by/for professors in this arena. One might expect in-fighting, but squelching free speech and using intimidation to quiet speech and dampen academic freedom is deeply troubling. Colleges should be paragons of virtue in this regard. Instead, some of them are fueling the decline of these crucial values. 

From there, LH offer six interacting explanations with a chapter each (125). Chapter 6 discusses how a cycle of events and responses to those events have served to increase our woes in this realm. They touch on media bias-- which plays to members of various tribes, to satisfy their own ideological impulses or to make money as good media capitalists. Chapter 7 details the growth in anxiety and depression, particularly among the young and especially among girls. The advent of the IPhone, the increase in "screen time", and especially the proliferation of social media has been problematic, especially for young women. Chapter 8 describes the role of "paranoid" or "helicopter" parents-- in their responses to (perceived) threats, the fruit of safety-ism, and the implications of having fewer kids in the upper income classes (and the increased focus per-child that results). 

In Chapter 9, LH lament the reduction in play-- particularly unsupervised activity. This decline can be linked to less ability to take risks, learn from mistakes, and build social skills. Chapter 10 lays out the bureaucratic incentives within universities that have contributed: risk-averse bureaucrats would rather err on the side of safety and conservatism than values  that promote education. And in Chapter 11, they conclude with our society's increased focus on "justice", albeit in utopian terms. They also take a big poke at social scientists, asking why they have been unwilling to apply their usual critical thinking skills to univariate analysis and false-cause fallacies with respect to complex social problems (228). 

The book concludes with helpful advice for parents and K-12 (chapter 12) and universities (chapter 13). Careful readers will see these chapters as a review and summation of earlier points. But it's useful to compile all of the advice in one place. 

For social observers and those passionate about free speech and education, The Coddling of the American Mind is essential reading. It's important to understand the cause/effect and  to have empathy for what has shaped the current crop of young adults. Without this, we'll stay frustrated-- and more important, less able to help them move past their fears and illiberalism to healthy lives and vibrant community. 


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