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Soft and Brittle

books and culture

Soft and Brittle

Today’s college students have been raised to view discomfort as intolerable. October 5, 2018
Education

The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt (Penguin, 352 pp., $28.00)

For those of us who graduated from college within the last decade—but before terms like trigger warning and micro-aggression became current—today’s college students appear to be a different breed. I graduated from Dartmouth in 2009, where I edited the conservative Dartmouth Review. The paper’s bread and butter was covering (and making fun of) the earnest PC culture endemic to college campuses, and we editors had our antennae up for any hints of liberal folly.

But the issues we explored—like the administration’s abortive attempt to implement a speech code or its efforts to abolish Greek life—seem quaint compared with what’s been happening in the last few years at schools like the University of Minnesota, Yale, Evergreen State, Middlebury, and Berkeley, the last three being scenes of mob violence. Students’ insistence on safe spaces and trigger warnings; the heckling of controversial speakers; the rise of bias-response hotlines; mob aggression as a response to offensive ideas—it’s unimaginable to many millennials, liberals and conservatives alike, that such conditions have become common on campuses where we were students just a few years ago. What’s changed?

That’s the question at the heart of The Coddling of the American Mind, an important new book by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt about the new “culture of safetyism” taking root on college campuses. Originating as a provocative Atlantic article, the book is no screed but rather a work of cultural criticism and social science, managing to do what few books on the culture wars achieve—persuade without alienating.

Coddling began as a lunchtime conversation between Lukianoff and Haidt in 2014. Lukianoff, a First Amendment lawyer and head of the free-speech advocacy group FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), reached out to Haidt, an NYU social scientist, about a disturbing new trend on campuses: students seemed psychologically fragile in ways that he had never seen, and their fragility was impairing their ability to confront intellectually challenging situations, such as visiting speakers whose views they found objectionable. Speech codes, Lukianoff knew from his work for FIRE, were nothing new—students, and especially administrators, have been trying to stifle speech deemed racist and sexist since the 1960s. But in recent years, students became the primary drivers of efforts to curtail speech, and their justification had changed. Students didn’t dispute offensive ideas on their merits but because those ideas made them feel “unsafe.” In a 2017 survey by McLaughlin and Associates, 80 percent of undergraduates said that “Words can be a form of violence,” and 30 percent agreed that “If someone is using hate speech or making racially charged comments, physical violence can be justified to prevent this person from espousing their hateful views.” If ideas are “violent,” then a violent response is justified as self-defense, in this view.

The Coddling of the American Mind makes a fascinating social-science detective story. Lukianoff and Haidt identify several broad causes of the campus unrest, including political polarization and a changing definition of social justice, influenced by Black Lives Matter and other protest movements. But the most compelling factor is a change among students themselves. Drawing on the research of psychologist Jean Twenge, Lukianoff and Haidt point out that, beginning in 2013, a new generation of students started arriving on campuses. Known as iGen, the Internet generation, its members are different in at least two significant ways from the millennials who preceded them. First, members of iGen, born after 1995, are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety, and to commit suicide or self-harm, than millennials, born between 1982 and 1994. The other distinguishing factor, Twenge found, is that this new generation is “obsessed with safety.” They drink less, smoke less, and have less sex—and they believe that “one should be safe not just from car accidents and sexual assault but from people who disagree with you.” Lukianoff and Haidt cite a 2017 study that found that 58 percent of students said it was “important to be part of a campus community where I am not exposed to intolerant and offensive ideas.”

Members of iGen were the first to grow up with social media in their back pockets. They spend more time behind screens and less time doing the kinds of activities that once defined youth, like hanging out with friends, playing sports, and reading books. They’re also exposed to new forms of bullying and social exclusion online. Social media, as the authors note, impair their ability to develop what social scientists call, in a nod to Tocqueville, “the art of association”—that is, the ability to solve problems and resolve differences together, in person, without appealing to authority figures. Social media also allow users to create their own “bubbles”; the carefully curated feeds of today’s adolescents present them with a reality suited to their tastes and interests, to the exclusion of anything that might challenge their biases.

Good parenting should help offset these effects, but Lukianoff and Haidt argue that iGen’s parents stymied their children’s development. Alarmed by reports in the 1990s of child abductions, and obsessed with getting their kids into increasingly competitive four-year colleges, some middle-class parents refused to let their kids play outside by themselves, overscheduled them, and generally shielded them from the adversities of daily life that once helped young people develop stores of resilience and strength. And so, as Lukianoff and Haidt tell it, a group of mentally fragile and brittle students began arriving on campuses, expecting administrators and professors to protect them from the “violence” of offensive ideas.

Fortunately, there’s been a backlash. Van Jones, a former Obama administration official, told a group of students at the University of Chicago, “I don’t want you to be safe ideologically. I don’t want you to be safe emotionally. I want you to be strong. That’s different. I’m not going to pave the jungle for you. Put on some boots, and learn how to deal with adversity. I’m not going to take all the weights out of the gym; that’s the whole point of the gym. This is the gym.”

And here lies hope for the future—academics and commentators who fall on opposite sides of the political divide have managed, in this hyper-partisan cultural moment, to find common ground. A good example is Heterodox Academy, an organization Haidt founded in 2015. Heterodox Academy consists of more than 2,000 faculty members whose goal is to increase viewpoint diversity on campuses. Its members—including Princeton’s Robert George, Harvard’s Stephen Pinker, and Columbia’s John McWhorter—are fighting an uphill battle, but they represent a movement that has the potential to retake academia. But given the overwhelmingly progressive culture on most campuses, the situation isn’t likely to change dramatically until more professors bring these messages to students—or an entirely new generation of hardier students arrive to college.

The Coddling of the American Mind (pinstock/iStock)

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