In 2015, Greg Lukianoff of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and Jonathan Haidt of New York University caused a sensation with their cover story in The Atlantic titled “The Coddling of the American Mind.” Their article quickly became one of the most read and talked-about pieces in the venerable history of The Atlantic, and it formed the basis for their 2018 book of the same title.
Their title is a play on Allan Bloom’s classic The Closing of the American Mind, and they offer their own unique twist on a venerable genre of exposés about Kids These Years. Censoriousness is nothing new, but they note that there is an important difference between previous generations and what they document: the students themselves, they argue, have turned against freedom of speech.
Importantly, the authors note, they have medicalized offense and effrontery, referring to ideas they find offensive as “violence” and claiming that universities should be spaces where people, and especially people of marginalized identities, are “safe” from “trauma.” Of course, we want universities and all public spaces to be safe. However, the “safety” that has come into vogue as iGen—those born after 1995 or thereabouts who have grown up with mobile devices and 24/7 access to the internet—has come to college has been defined in psychological and emotional rather than physical terms. The censorious students seek not only physical safety but also protection from ideas that might make them comfortable.
It is, as they note, an affront to the very telos of the university, which should ostensibly be the fearless pursuit of truth wherever it may lead and not the pursuit of intellectual and physical comfort. Further, they argue, parents and administrators operating with the best of intentions have harmed and are harming the members of iGen who are demanding refuge from ideas they don’t like.
These protectors and Kindly Inquisitors, to use the title of Jonathan Rauch’s 1993 book, are unintentionally harming the people they are trying to protect by doing exactly the opposite of what we would want them to do if the goal is to create resilient, functional adults. The policy of shielding people from challenges to their worldview and values is a recipe for creating a generation of depressed, anxious neurotics who lack the ability to confront and address meaningful challenges.
The book is brisk and exceptionally readable. Lukianoff and Haidt organize their argument around what they call Three Great Untruths. First, what doesn’t kill me makes me weaker. Second, always trust your feelings. Third, “life is a battle between good people and evil people.” The first Untruth encourages people to avoid intellectual, spiritual, and moral challenges. The second encourages people to rely on the least-reliable elements of our psyches. The third strips the world of nuance and turns everything into combat and conflict between the forces of righteousness (Us) and the forces of evil (Them).
Throughout their discussion of these untruths, they identify the psychologically unhealthy practices endemic to them. It is here that they get personal. Drawing on Lukianoff’s experience battling clinical depression, they highlight the ways in which demands for “safety” and refusal to entertain the notion that others might possibly be arguing in good faith lead to psychological absurdities and pathologies.
Rather than seeing, say, an on-campus lecture by conservative firebrand Ben Shapiro as an opportunity to sharpen one’s own mind or an invitation into discussion, those indulging the Great Untruths see Shapiro’s very presence on campus as an existential threat. Throughout, those who would deny speakers like Shapiro a platform engage in catastrophizing, or focusing on the absolute worst that could happen.
It would be a mistake to think that this is a left-wing phenomenon, though this dominates the narrative. They document outrages against free speech at Middlebury College, where Political Science Professor Alison Stanger sustained a concussion during a violent response to a lecture by Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute, but they also note the important problem of epistemic closure on the right.
Left-wing violence has led to injury. Right- wing violence, as with the motorist who ran down activist Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, has led to deaths. Or consider a tweet by George Ciccariello-Maher of Drexel University saying “All I want for Christmas is White Genocide.” Is he actually calling for genocide? Of course not: in this case, he is coopting the language of white nationalists who have referred in many places to the left’s goal as “white genocide”–and who have responded violently.
Their accounts of the infamous temper tantrums aimed at Nicholas and Erika Christakis at Yale and Linda Spellman at Claremont McKenna College makes the reader wonder if reading comprehension skills are really so poor at elite colleges and universities. Administrators’ reactions to threats against Bret Weinstein at Evergreen State College can only be described as studies in cowardice. It is as if administrators do not know what every parent of toddlers and small children knows implicitly: do not negotiate with terrorists. And to present unreasonable demands—that Weinstein be fired, for example—based on an inability or unwillingness to comprehend his message and in a manner inconsistent with the telos of the academic enterprise is not literal terrorism, obviously, but it is toddlerish. Colleges and universities do students no favors when they give in.
Edmund Burke wrote that “it is no excuse for presumptuous ignorance that it is directed by insolent passion.” The campuses that worry Lukianoff and Haidt are those in which presumptuous ignorance is strength, to borrow from George Orwell, and insolent passion is what ultimately matters. But as Christina Hoff Summers told an audience at the University of Massachusetts when someone screamed “Stop talking to us like we’re children,” “Quit acting like a child.” And, as they note in their discussion of the riots at the University of California, Berkeley that accompanied an appearance by right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannapolous, the message sent by a university that did not discipline any of the rioters was this: “Violence works.”
At issue in some cases is the adoption of the language of trauma and safety and the conflation of metaphorical with actual violence. They offer numerous important examples like the harrowing Title IX investigation of Northwestern’s Laura Kipnis and the claim that Rhodes College philosopher Rebecca Tuvel’s paper on transracialism that appeared in the feminist philosophy journal Hypatia somehow enacted “violence” on different communities. After reading her paper and some of the reactions to it, it seems like an entire field has adopted presumptuous ignorance and insolent passion as methods of “discussion”—and I use the term very loosely.
This would be very depressing if they didn’t offer at least some possible ways out. Fortunately, they do. There is a fundamentally positive message in their explanation of the ways in which children and students are anti-fragile, meaning that they have complex adaptive systems that get tougher when subjected to stress. The advice they offer at the end of the book will, if adopted, reverse at least some of the trend toward the medicalization of disagreement.
They quote Hanna Holborn Gray: “Education should not be intended to make people comfortable; it is meant to make them think.” It’s a legacy we should reclaim as careful thought has to precede effective action. “Burn it all down” might sound nice to the insolently passionate and presumptuously ignorant, but it is reasonable to expect that what rises from the ashes will be worse than what we are trying to replace.
So here’s what they recommend. Instead of “common-enemy” identity politics emphasizing a zero-sum struggle between groups, they recommend the common humanity politics of (for example) Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights leaders who made important strides in the 1950s and 1960s. They also recommend adopting the practices of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to avoid having our rational faculties overridden by our emotions. If microaggression is traumatic, how much more traumatic will it be for people to grasp that they have ruined lives and careers with their intemperate outbursts?
Lukianoff and Haidt ask, bracingly:
“What happens when you train students to see others—and themselves—as members of distinct groups defined by race, gender, and other socially significant factors, and you tell them that those groups are eternally engaged in a zero-sum conflict over status and resources?”
The answer is “nothing good.”
Disinvitations and the like are discouraging but thankfully rare. There are thousands of colleges and universities in the United States that likely offer dozens of speaker events every week. The number of disinvitations is very small relative to the total number of events schools hold—but a high-profile disinvitation at a major college or university can have a chilling effect on the rest of discourse.
Colleges and universities (and, increasingly, high schools) are prescribing exactly the wrong kind of treatment for students confronted with ideas they don’t like. They encourage people to avoid discomfort. To borrow a metaphor from Van Jones that Lukianoff and Haidt cite, they take the weights out of the gym and expect people to get stronger. Or, as CS Lewis puts it in The Abolition of Man, they castrate people and then bid them to be fruitful. The Coddling of the American Mind is an exhortation to stop and, thankfully, a guide to a better and more effective academy.