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The Coddling Of The American Mind

December 31, 2018 Frontpage No Comments


Over the Christmas break I got to catch up on my reading. I had an eye infection this fall and it put a halt to my book reading; I could do the Liturgy of the Hours, brief newspaper articles and the like, but book reading, more than a few pages at a sitting, was out of the question. After a trip to the eye doctor, all was made better.
One of the books that I had been wanting to read was written by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind; How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting up a Generation for Failure. I recommend it to you.
I first heard of the book on C-SPAN’s Book TV and I recognized one of the authors, Greg Lukianoff, as the president and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which specializes in First Amendment issues on college campuses. His co-author, Dr. Haidt, is a professor of ethical leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business.
If you have been wondering what is going on at colleges, these 281 pages (plus notes) will give you a pretty good explanation. It focuses on the iGens (the first Internet generation) who entered college around 2012-2013 and now need “safe spaces,” want to allow feelings to control their lives, and feel free to shout down those with whom they disagree.
Setting the tone of the book, the authors tell the story of peanut allergies. Rare up into the 1990s, peanut allergies are now so prevalent that schools are banning any food with peanuts or peanut products, including home-packed lunches, from school buildings and other venues.
The authors point to a study of 640 children over a five-year period. Half of the parents were told to avoid all exposure to peanut products. The other half were told to give their children a peanut-mixed snack at least three times a week. After five years the children were tested. Among those in the “avoid peanut” half, 17 percent were positive for peanut allergies, but only three percent of the other half tested positive. The authors theorize that the peanut ban, done to protect students, left their immune systems unable to develop a natural antibiotic to the allergy.
Thus, in trying to protect children, the ban actually made them more vulnerable to the allergy. It is that theory that the book exploits: What we do for children by way of protection can actually be counterproductive when the natural immune system is not allowed to develop.
The same holds true for the emotional development of children. Normal childhood activities develop the child’s ability to cope with the world, an emotional immune system, if you will. However, overprotection limits exposure to the normal range of life experiences and the child is not inoculated from the normal vexations of life and does not learn how to deal with others, settle disputes, and recover from disappointments.
The thesis of the book is that in the name of protecting children, we have raised iGens, who, because they were overprotected or coddled as children, have lost the normal protection of a natural emotional immune system because they received no exposure to the normal childhood environment of challenges and stresses.
This has been brought about by the adoption of what the authors call the three Great Untruths: that children are fragile and need protection (coddling); emotional reasoning is a true guide for life (your feelings are always right); and life is a battle between good people (us), and bad people (them).
For each of the Great Untruths, the authors trace its origin and how it damages children. For example, the result of the belief that children are fragile and need protection is a generation that has never had to adapt to uncomfortable or stressful situations, and who now need “safe spaces” and need trigger warnings before controversial issues can be discussed.
“If we protect children from various classes of potentially upsetting experiences, we make it far more likely that those children will be unable to cope with such events when they leave our protective umbrella. The modern obsession with protecting young people from ‘feeling unsafe’ is, we believe, one of the (several) causes of the rapid rise in the rates of adolescent depression, anxiety, and suicide,” they warn.
Thus, to protect their students, today’s colleges “underwent a process of ‘concept creep’” to expand the meaning of “safety” to include “emotional safety.” From there the word “violence” has also taken on a new meaning:
“This is another example of concept creep. In just the last few years, the word ‘violence’ has expanded on campus and in some radical political communities beyond campus to cover of multitude of nonviolent actions, including speech that this political faction claims will have a negative impact on members of protected identity groups,” the authors said.
Encouraging students to trust their feelings, emotional reasoning, the authors argue, leads to students who interpret the actions of others in “the least generous way possible.” Thus, minor comments or actions are taken as micro-aggressions, indignities that must be dealt with.
One example is the simple question often posed on college campuses: “Where are you from?” Not so simple to those now trained to look for micro-aggressions everywhere. Thus the question suggests that the questioner is implying that the other party is different, perhaps a non-citizen. “‘[T]he micro-aggression concept reveals a crucial moral change on campus: the shift from ‘intent’ to ‘impact’….Some activists say that bigotry is only about impact, intent is not even necessary. If a member of an identity group feels offended or oppressed by the action of another person, then according to the impact-versus-intent paradigm, that other person is guilty of an act of bigotry.”
This also sets the stage for the us-versus-them confrontation. Obviously, if someone is offensive, they must be rooted out. One of the stories the authors tell is of a Mexican student at Claremont McKenna College near Los Angeles. Noticing that most of the Latinos on staff were in blue-color jobs, she wrote in an article for a student publication that she felt like she had been admitted to fill a racial quota. She also sent copies to the college staff.
Responding, the dean of students sent her a short note of thanks for sharing her article, and asked if the student might want to visit with her to discuss the issues she raised. “Would you be willing to talk with me sometime about these issues? They are important to me . . . we are working on how we can better serve students, especially those who don’t fit our CMC mold. I would love to talk with you more.”
The student, however, was offended by the use of the word “mold.” She posted the note on her Facebook page and called out the dean with the comment, “I just don’t feel that wonderful CMC mold. Feel free to share.” There was an uprising on campus; the administration did nothing (as usual) to support the dean who later resigned.
The authors write: “Common-enemy identity politics, when combined with micro-aggression theory, produces a call-out culture in which almost anything one says or does could result in a public shaming. . . . Call-out cultures are detrimental to students’ education and bad for their mental health. Call-out cultures and us-versus-them thinking are incompatible with the educational and research mission of universities.”
All this encourages students to think of themselves as members of a group, or tribe. “When the ‘tribe switch’ is activated, we bind ourselves more tightly to the group, we embrace and defend the group’s moral matrix, and we stop thinking for ourselves. A basic principle of moral psychology is that ‘morality binds and blinds,’ which is a useful trick for a group gearing up for a battle between ‘us’ and ‘them’.”
There is much more to the book which cannot be fairly covered in a short column, such as: how polarization, anxiety and depression, the lack of unsupervised play, and the Internet have all participated in the rise of the Great Untruths which have shaped iGens and college campuses.
The book also makes recommendations to help assuage the effects of the Untruths, including limiting social media, “a major part of the problem, implicated both in rising rates of mental illness and in rising political polarization,” and encouraging more free-range parenting “as more parents and educators come to see that overprotection is harming children.”
Lukianoff and Haidt explain a lot — more than I can in a brief column. The book is a good and interesting read; I recommend it for a better understanding of the new generational culture that is beginning to reshape societal norms.
(Mike can be reached at: Deacon

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