September 12, 2018 Print

In the past few years, the atmosphere of college campuses in the U.S. has become increasingly hostile to free speech. A recent Gallup poll found that 61% of college students in the U.S. feel that the climate on their campus prevents people from speaking freely. Speakers are shouted down, threatened, and attacked on campuses across the country. Students and professors tread carefully as countless claims of “microaggression” gag even well-meaning people from speaking their mind. Despite efforts to protect students from being offended, rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide continue to rise.

In their new book, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt investigate the root of these problems. Their examination reveals a “safetyism” culture founded upon three “Great Untruths:” What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker; always trust your feelings; and life is a battle between good people and evil people. These Great Untruths, respectively, deceive children about their own fragility, the reliability of emotional reasoning, and the “us vs. them” nature of the world.

Greg Lukianoff is a First Amendment expert and the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), an organization that seeks to defend the freedoms of professors and students, including freedoms of speech, association, and conscience. Together with Jonathan Haidt, author of New York Times Bestseller The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Lukianoff demonstrates the damage that “safetyism” does to children’s mental, social, and emotional development.

"The Coddling of the American Mind is a book about wisdom and its opposite,” says Lukianoff. “It’s about Great Untruths that contradict ancient wisdom and the teachings of modern psychology but are increasingly woven into childhood, our education systems, and our democracy — and to devastating effect."

Coddling was praised in a New York Times Book Review by Thomas Chatterton Williams as “A disturbing and comprehensive analysis of recent campus trends.” Shielding young people so avidly has led to students who are “politically and socially ‘stunted’ by a false and deepening belief in [their] own fragility.” Mere words are now considered “violence” by some students, and an increasing number would prefer banning “hate speech” to allowing free expression on campus. Such an intellectually bubble-wrapped mindset could spell danger for the democratic principles of the U.S. that require a free and robust exchange of ideas.

“The consequences of a generation unable or disinclined to engage with ideas and interlocutors that make them uncomfortable are dire for society,” writes Williams. “[These consequences] open the door — accessible from both the left and the right — to various forms of authoritarianism.”

Good intentions are said to pave an infamous road and, in their book, Lukianoff and Haidt reveal how damaging and deceptive patterns of thought are leading a new generation down that same road. The rise of authoritarian populism on both the political right and the political left has found a home in countries around the world, and Atlas Network encourages its partners to apply for its Illiberalism Grant Program, which is designed to help our partners who are working to combat the new authoritarianism and stop the rise of illiberal statist sentiment.

Lukianoff and Haidt appear on CBS This Morning about their new book, mentioning how unpleasant bumps and bruises encountered in life should be properly framed for adolescents. However, the "catastrophizing" of these events encourages students to shrink away from encountering disagreeable thoughts and experiences.

“One of the greatest ideas from every culture is that “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so,’ as Shakespeare put it,” said Haidt in the CBS interview above. “Or ‘Our life is the creation of our minds,’ is how Buddha put it. As students are coming into a new situation, should they interpret everything as dangerous, threatening, and aggressive, or should they interpret it as a cornucopia full of opportunities? There are going to be little bumps along the way. There are going to be unpleasantnesses. Should they interpret those as attacks, or as faux pas, or errors? And so how students learn how to frame things will greatly affect whether they thrive or whether they retreat into a shell into a defensive crouch in college.”

Lukianoff and Haidt's book has already received rave reviews, among them:

“Rising intolerance for opposing viewpoints is a challenge not only on college campuses but also in our national political discourse. The future of our democracy requires us to understand what’s happening and why — so that we can find solutions and take action. Reading ‘The Coddling of the American Mind’ is a great place to start.” — Michael Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg LP and Bloomberg Philanthropies, and 108th mayor of New York City

“Our behavior in society is not immune to the power of rational scientific analysis. Through that lens, prepare yourself for a candid look at the softening of America, and what we can do about it.” — Neil deGrasse Tyson, director, Hayden Planetarium, and author of ‘Astrophysics for People in a Hurry’

“Their advice is sound. Their book is excellent. Liberal parents, in particular, should read it.” — Financial Times

“The speed with which campus life has changed for the worse is one of the most important points made by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in this important if disturbing book.” — The Times

“Perhaps the strongest argument in Haidt and Lukianoff’s favour, though, is this: if you see this issue as being about little more than a few sanctimonious teenagers throwing hissy fits on campus then, yes, it is probably receiving too much attention. But if you accept their premise, that it’s really a story about mental wellbeing and emotional fragility, about a generation acting out because it has been set up to fail by bad parenting and poorly designed institutions, then their message is an urgent one. And it is one that resonates well beyond dusty libraries and manicured quadrangles, into all of our lives.” — Josh Glancy, The Sunday Times (UK)

“No one is omniscient or infallible, so a willingness to evaluate new ideas is vital to understanding our world. Yet universities, which ought to be forums for open debate, are developing a reputation for dogmatism and intolerance. Haidt and Lukianoff, distinguished advocates of freedom of expression, offer a deep analysis of what’s going wrong on campus, and how we can hold universities to their highest ideals.” — Steven Pinker, professor, Harvard University, and author of Enlightenment Now

“This book synthesizes the teachings of many disciplines to illuminate the causes of major problems besetting college students and campuses, including declines in mental health, academic freedom, and collegiality. More importantly, the authors present evidence-based strategies for overcoming these challenges. An engrossing, thought-provoking, and ultimately inspiring read.” — Nadine Strossen, past President, ACLU, and author of HATE: Why We Should Resist it with Free Speech, Not Censorship

“How can we as a nation do a better job of preparing young men and women of all backgrounds to be seekers of truth and sustainers of democracy? In The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt provide a rigorous analysis of this perennial challenge as it presents itself today, and offer thoughtful prescriptions for meeting it. What’s more, the book models the virtues and practical wisdom its authors rightly propose as the keys to progress. Lukianoff and Haidt teach young people—and all of us—by example as well as precept.” — Cornel West, professor, Harvard University, and author of Democracy Matters; and Robert P. George, professor, Princeton University, and author of Conscience and Its Enemies