The Coddling of the American Mind

Cover of the Coddling of the American Mind

Something has been going wrong on many college campuses in the last few years. Speakers are shouted down. Students and professors say they are walking on eggshells and are afraid to speak honestly. Rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide are rising—on campus as well as nationally. How did this happen?

First Amendment expert Greg Lukianoff and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt show how the new problems on campus have their origins in three terrible ideas that have become increasingly woven into American childhood and education: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker; always trust your feelings; and life is a battle between good people and evil people. These three Great Untruths contradict basic psychological principles about well-being and ancient wisdom from many cultures.  Embracing these untruths—and the resulting culture of safetyism—interferes with young people’s social, emotional, and intellectual development. It makes it harder for them to become autonomous adults who are able to navigate the bumpy road of life.

Lukianoff and Haidt investigate the many social trends that have intersected to promote the spread of these untruths. They explore changes in childhood such as the rise of fearful parenting, the decline of unsupervised, child-directed play, and the new world of social media that has engulfed teenagers in the last decade. They examine changes on campus, including the corporatization of universities and the emergence of new ideas about identity and justice. They situate the conflicts on campus within the context of America’s rapidly rising political polarization and dysfunction.

This is a book for anyone who is confused by what is happening on college campuses today, or has children, or is concerned about the growing inability of Americans to live, work, and cooperate across party lines.

How We Got Here

Randy and Julie recommended we read this book after Randy first read it. 

Some Context

There are a variety of factors and or ideas that impact this discussion that are worth a brief discussion. Below I have provided a bit more content around these ideas. 

Gen Z. 

Generation Z is generally understood to the be the generation born between 1997 (or so) and the early 2010s. Haidt points out in the book many of the factors that are unique to this generation. One of the main factors that impacted this generation was the spread of the smart phone and social media. There were many other factors to include a change in parenting style that also impacted this generation. Some more general discussion of this generation can be found on the Generation Z Wikipedia page

CBT or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Haidt discusses CBT a good bit in the book and it is worth briefly discussing what it is. The American Psychological Association "defines" CBT as...

"Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of psychological treatment that has been demonstrated to be effective for a range of problems including depression, anxiety disorders, alcohol and drug use problems, marital problems, eating disorders, and severe mental illness. Numerous research studies suggest that CBT leads to significant improvement in functioning and quality of life. In many studies, CBT has been demonstrated to be as effective as, or more effective than, other forms of psychological therapy or psychiatric medications.

It is important to emphasize that advances in CBT have been made on the basis of both research and clinical practice. Indeed, CBT is an approach for which there is ample scientific evidence that the methods that have been developed actually produce change. In this manner, CBT differs from many other forms of psychological treatment."

I recommend you review their short one page discussion on it on their webpage. They briefly discuss some of its principles and treatments. 

This very brief one minute video gives a good overview of what CBT is and how it works. 

Videos By Haidt on the Book

Jonathan Haidt made the rounds on podcasts and tv shows and many different types of media when the book came out. There are many videos out there on the book and here are just a few. 

Why modern America creates fragile children 

This is a good short ten minute video that sums up the book. 

Professor Jonathan Haidt speaks at UCCS

This is an hour long or so lecture he gave at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. If you are not able to read the book this is a very good substitution. 

Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression

The co-author Greg Lukianoff is founder and President of the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education which has now been changed to Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. 

FIRE's mission is: FIRE defends and promotes the value of free speech for all Americans in our courtrooms, on our campuses, and in our culture.

If you are interested in the issue of free speech on college campus and an organization that is actively fighting to advance freedom of thought and expression on campus this is a very interesting website. Free Speech Makes Free People.

This is the website they made in support of the book. It has bios about the authors, some commentary updates from when they published the book, graphs and charts referred to in the book and other interesting aspects to look at. 

The Role of Universities in Germany in the Rise of the Nazis

The historian Niall Ferguson wrote a very interesting article after the testimony of the 3 elite university presidents about the role of universities in the rise of Nazism in Germany. It is commonly assumed that universities lean left, but Ferguson points out that German example where that was not true. What similarity that is interesting that he points out is the commonality of totalitarianism whether it is the right or left flavor and how universities can grow them. The Treason of the Intellectuals is a fascinating article. 

Potential Discussion Points

It is a book that raises a lot of interesting points worthy of discussion. While I was listening to it here are a few that came to mind.

  • How will Gen Z handle social media with their children when they are parents and why?
  • Is the  culture on college campuses today truly as fragile and stifling as the authors of the book make it out? Are we just nut-picking?
  • How might this book be different if the authors had been politically further left or further right? 
  • Do we really want absolute free speech and free thought on campus or should it be bounded within American values? Will the pursuit of truth always lead to a better intellectual position or is their a danger of dangerous and immoral ideas taking hold and spreading like Nazism in the 1930s in Germany or wokeism in the 2020s in American Universities?
  • What is the role of universities in America? The authors argue that it is the pursuit of truth, but is there more than that? What about developing educated and skilled citizens to improve the nation?
  • Why has Gen X (1965-1980) been so compliant with supporting the 3 Great Untruths? (What doesn't kill you makes you weaker, always trust your feelings, life is a battle between good and evil people)

The Discussion

Our discussion took place via Zoom on 4 February and was very lively and thought provoking. Amy, Chet, David, Julie, Mary Ann, Randy and Sam participated. Lots of good discussion surrounding the role of universities and free speech. Chet directed us in a discussion on the Chicago free speech statement. David pointed us into the direction that maybe this was not just an issue of fragility with Gen Z, but our entire nation. Julie made a point reinforcing with observations about how this fragility has spread to the work force as a whole in places like WA. It was a very good discussion. 

We did not have any recommendations for the next book.